Art on the body: Technical skills and artistic talent meet in UO costume design

Illustration by Mary Vertulfo.

The house lights fall over the audience as the show is about to begin. The stage lights up and the crowd claps excitedly as the first actor walks out, dressed head-to-toe in grand Renaissance garb, transporting everyone back in time, and setting up the entire show for what’s to come.

When you think of the theater, it’s easy to appreciate the larger parts of it all: the acting, the set or even the story itself. But it takes the little details to pull it all together: the lights, the props and — a sometimes overlooked detail — the costumes. Costumes have the ability to set up the audience’s perception of the show for anything— from establishing the time period to understanding the personality of a character.

This is why the University of Oregon’s theater department provides students with opportunities to hone their abilities in costume design and construction through its costume design program.

“Costumes are a tool to help tell the story, more than anything else,” said Shannon Dunbar, a second year Master of Fine Arts student in costume design. “When you’re at a show and you’re seeing this spectacle in front of you, it’s easy to forget all the minute details that went into every little aspect of that show [like the costumes].”

Each costume takes care and consideration. The long process of conceptualizing, sketching, collaborating and then finally constructing the piece can be tedious. For some, the initial concept development is what takes the most time in order to create the perfect, unique garment for each character in a production.

A recent UO production, Sonrisa del Coyote, featured costumes by Delta Starchild, a senior theater and fine arts major. She began planning the costumes for the show over the summer while she was spending time in London. The show opened Oct. 22, and it was Starchild’s second time designing for a New Voices production — the theater department’s annual scriptwriting competition.

“I did a lot of research into the way the Mexican culture and Native American culture visualize their lore so I could be accurate in what I was portraying,” Starchild said. “It’s really a love for theater and a love for clothing, and the way you can create art on the body.”

The costume design program indulges the creativity of students by allowing them to design for the shows each term and experiment with different ideas to give each show a special look. Because of this, Starchild was able to bring unique costumes to the stage- including a coyote mask made to resemble old coyote mosaics and a headdress with fox fur around it to better portray the personalities of the characters and the culture.

Dunbar, who will have designs featured in the theater program’s next production, Water by the Spoonful, feels that sometimes the fun in working with costumes is in how they have the ability to change the way people’s bodies are seen on the stage.

“It’s fun to do things that alter the shape of the body like [add] padding, or giant wigs and hats,” said Dunbar. “Things that make people look not necessarily human anymore are really interesting.”

In order for the costumes you see on stage to come to fruition, people spend hours behind the scenes hand-sewing, beading and building each piece from scratch. This work takes technical skill and practice, which is why the theater department is offering a course called Costume Construction (TA 419/519) this term.

“If anybody wants to design costumes, they have to know how to make them,” said Jeanette deJong, the new head of the costume department. DeJong has taught costume design for three years now, and has designed costumes for approximately 160 shows all around the country for a variety of companies and story themes.

With a capacity of only 10 students, deJong’s class is small and hands-on and assigns multiple projects over the term to allow each person to develop their construction skills. Students in this class can expect to walk away with skills in tailoring and even constructing a corset. Even those who already have design experience under their belts like Dunbar are excited to take the class to help strengthen their technical skills.

“You can easily spend a couple weeks on a costume,” said deJong. “Dyeing fabric, designing, fitting, painting the fabric and adding details … I think that when you see all the costumes together on the stage and everything moves beautifully, you feel you’ve done your part in the play beautifully.”

But is it feasible to have that feeling of joy and satisfaction in your craft and still make enough to pay rent? Oregon is ranked fourth in the nation for average salary of costume designers, with the average hourly wage settling at $30.61, and a yearly salary of $63,680, according to Sokanu, an online career service. And that’s just for the design —  not taking into consideration the construction of the pieces, which can be done by both designers and technicians.

“I would say there’s more demand for costume technicians,” said deJong. “The people who know how to make the beautiful things are more in demand. The students in the class now are learning skills so they can better make costumes for the stage.”

While Oregon is ranked in the top five for pay, for professionals like Vicki Vanecek-Young, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find work locally.

“It’s a small costume market in Eugene,” said Vanecek-Young, who has worked in costume for 40 years. “It’s a way of travelling. You’ve got some opportunity out there, you just need a little time to find it.”

Despite the late nights and countless hours spent bent over a sewing machine, lining up the perfect color compliments and trying to seamlessly pull everything together before a show, those who go to bed dreaming up new costume concepts are grateful for the challenges that come with the craft.

“I love the collaboration, and I love the opportunity to be a storyteller as well as a visual artist,” said Dunbar. “That’s the most rewarding part, being able to see your work put in front of you and come to life.”