There’s more to theater costumes than meets the eye

By Marcela Creps 812-331-4375 | Jul 9, 2017

Photo by Chris Howell | Herald-Times Drawings for “Love’s Labour’s Lost” costume design by Emmie Phelps, a recent MFA in Costume Design at IU.

When attending a theater production at Indiana University, have you ever given thought to the costumes?

Yes, sometimes the costumes standout and can catch your eye, but the costume designers behind the work are also trying to be sure that the costumes are true to the time period so that they don’t stand out as being wrong.

Costume Studio Supervisor Robbie Stanton

Robbie Stanton, costumer for IU, said a lot of research goes into designing the costumes so that they are correct for the time period. Designers will also work with the director, presenting ideas that may or may not be what the director is looking for before doing renderings.

When it comes to making sure a costume is historically right, there’s a fine line for the designers. “We work from research to get as close to the real thing,” he said. But sometimes that may not work for the actor.

“A lot of period clothing made restrictions on movement,” Stanton said. A coat he was working on for “Persuasion” was a good example. “Men’s coats actually forced their shoulders back and curved their arms. The dresses that we’re using in ‘Persuasion’, which is the empire regency, they also hold the shoulders back.”

With those restrictions, it would be difficult for an actor to move, so adjustments need to be made so that the costume works for the actor. “We’re trying to use it for what we need,” Stanton said.

But it’s not as simple as designing for the right time period and for what the director wants. Stanton also has to consider how much things will cost and how much time is needed to create the clothes.

“We have to look at the logistics of anything — time, money — just like any business,” Stanton said.

Costume designers are given a budget, and when deciding what to create, more has to be considered that just the cost of the fabric or a premade shirt.

“I don’t make those decisions,” Stanton said of costume designers chosen for a particular show. “I say if you want a $200 undershirt, fine. But just make sure you’ve got money so he’s got pants on. What’s more important,” Stanton said.

Photo by Chris Howell | Herald-Times

While it is important to work within the budget, it is also important to not be too far under budget. Phelps said in a previous show she was under budget by $2,500.

Phelps said that budgets are often based on what was used the previous quarter or year, so if a designer is under budget, it gives the impression that the next production would need less money. It is a good idea to keep some money available in case there is a problem, but she now knows how important it is to use what she’s given.

“You need to use it for things for the show,” she said.

Finding the pieces

Sometimes clothes can be repurposed from a previous show. When IU staged “Dames at Sea” earlier in the summer season, Stanton remembered working on that show years ago.

“We had a set of costumes that were for ‘The Echo Waltz,'” Stanton said. So he encouraged the designer to look in stock to see if they were workable.

“If you like the, we’ll use them. She did. We used them,” Stanton said. “Everything else was built new.”

To build a new costume, the designers have options. Sometimes it means a buying trip to Chicago or New York City to find the right fabric. Other times, it means going into IU’s fabric stock to find what is needed. There are also trims to consider as well as accessories, which, again may be purchased or found in stock.

Sometimes items can be rented. Since most theater companies have stock, IU can sometimes rent what is needed or even borrow from IU’s opera theater.

Shoes can also be tricky. Sometimes shoes can be pulled from stock, but there are times when they need to be purchased.

“These are brand new,” said Katie Cowan Sickmeier, costume designer for “Persuasion.” “We have to put something on there so he doesn’t slip,” she said, pointing to the slick sole of the shoe.

As “Persuasion” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” are performed in repertory, the challenges are increased.

“Every ounce of extra space is storage for the show that is not on, so I have to carve out quick change areas,” said Robbie Stanton, costumer for IU’s theater department.

Making the change

Finding space for actors to change means a lot of creative thought is needed.

“With these shows, I have 14 actors and five dressers. I have to figure out where I’m going to do all this,” he said.

Figuring it out means working with the set designer, technical director and electrician to make sure the dressers have the necessary space, lighting and equipment to do their jobs.

With the two current shows, two designers — Stanton and Sickmeier — split the work for “Persuasion” with Emmie Phelps working on “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Cutter/drapers work with the designers to make sure the costumes are completed on time.

Cutter/Draper Anne Sorenson

Anne Sorenson is the cutter/draper for “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which used previous costumes and reworked them for the show.

“The cutter/draper is really the engineer of the costuming world,” she said. She often is solving problems and re-engineering items so that they will work for the current show and actor.

She started taking sewing classes in sixth grade and went to undergraduate school thinking she would own a bridal shop, thinking it was a good way to continue her passion for sewing. In college, she had a chance work on some theater productions, and that opportunity opened her eyes to a potential new career.

Working in various places as a cutter/draper has given her a wealth of knowledge for the work she does. Since people have different techniques, her previous jobs have expanded her skills where she can adapt what she learns from others to help her with the job at hand. Working with others has been an important learning experience.

“A lot of it is hands on, and a lot of times it takes a couple of times to feel like you get it,” she said.

With only two dress rehearsals before a show opens, the designers are often sending out various pieces as they are finished so the actors can get a feel for what they will endure during the performance.

“If we threw all of this at the actors during dress rehearsals — quick changes, all the accessories — it’s not going to work,” Stanton said.

To keep things simple, actors are reduced to numbers when it comes to costumes. For example, with the two current shows, women are numbered one to seven with men numbered from eight to 14. Letters are then added to make it easy to identify the show. For example, 7L would be used for an actress in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Costumes than then easily be divvied up onto racks for men and women based on the shows.

“It’s all about organization. It’s all it is,” Stanton said.

There is a choreography that happens with the costumes, the actors and the dressers to ensure that everything is ready for each performance. Check lists are used for performances so that each item can be tracked. The checklist contains a box that is marked with a line when the actor takes it and marked a second time when the actor returns it. If each box has an “X” when the performance is through, then everything can be prepped for the next performance.

If you don’t have an X, you know what you’re missing. You go look for it because it could have been left backstage especially with so many changes,” Stanton said.

Actors are also given mesh bags where washables are to be put at the end of a performance. Items are washed after each performance with dry clean items and other props, including wigs, freshened up for the next show.

While the costumes are made to fit the actor or actress, it is rare that someone wants to keep a costume. Stanton remembers some extras that were hired to carry in a queen during a production. The actors, who were bodybuilders, wore chains around their necks with collars. Stanton said he has no idea why the extras wanted the collars.

When it comes to shows that use modern dress, sometimes the actors are offered the opportunity to buy the item at a discounted price. Stanton said modern dress items are easy to buy, so there isn’t any need to keep them.

“So we make a little money back, and the actor gets their costume at a much reduced price and something they can wear everyday,” he said.

Purchasing pieces

Sometimes what the costume shop needs to be can raise an eyebrow or two for IU’s purchasing department. For example, other costume shops will often purchase vodka for cleaning costumes. As it is straight alcohol, it can be used as a much cheaper option for cleaning costumes. However, due to the university’s restrictions, it isn’t possible to use it.

Other items can be even more questionable. Stanton remembers needing to buy a male enhancer last year for a character who was written up as well-endowed. For a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the costumes required people to be in fetish wear.

“When you go to, they wonder,” Stanton said.

For Phelps, working on “Love’s Labour’s Lost” gave her a chance at two new experiences as she’d never worked costumes from this period or worked with director Jonathan Michaelsen.

There were challenges of not only making sure the costumes were right but also working with previously used costumes and repurposing them.

“We have so much that we can’t build from scratch,” she said.

Phelps loved meeting the challenge and had fun creating all the costumes and accessories that were needed for the show. She was also able to use lots of hats.

“I love millinery. I love the craft work,” she said.

Reworking old costumes also means she’ll return things to stock better than she found them, since some of them had been deteriorating.

Phelps excitedly talked about the costumes she’s created and the work that she does. It makes it obvious that despite the challenges, she loves what she does.

“I’m so glad I’m not doing anything else,” she said.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Summer Theatre

WHAT: “Love’s Labour’s Lost” by William Shakespeare and “Persuasion,” adapted for the stage from Jane Austen’s novel by Jennifer LeBlanc

WHEN: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: 7:30 p.m. July 9, 11, 13, 15, 19, 21; 2 p.m. July 16, 22
“Persuasion”: 7:30 p.m. July 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22; 2 p.m., July 9, 15, 23

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

TICKETS: $10-$20 for each show. Call 812.855.1103 or visit

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. Visit The Herald Times online for this and more great arts news at

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s