On Costume Design: The Shapes of Things

David Brensilver

For the May 2013 edition of The Arts Paper, the focus of which will be fashion, I’m working on an article about costume design. Earlier this morning, I spoke by telephone with Cathy Mason, a costume design assistant at Long Wharf Theatre, which is preparing to stage a Ride the Tiger, a work by William Mastrosimone that is set in the inner circles of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.

Mason told me that costumes for the play are being designed by Yale School of Drama professor Jess Goldstein, who’s relying mostly on period research as he conceives the production’s aesthetic.

It just so happens, Mason said, that among today’s fashion trends is the popularity of clothing inspired by designs of the 1960s. Banana Republic, Mason pointed out, is currently promoting a collection inspired by the hit TV drama Mad Men.

And while Mason and her colleagues in Long Wharf Theatre’s costume shop don’t need to rely on trends to create designs for any given production, such coincidences allow them to include both “built” and “shopped” materials.

“We facilitate the storytelling,” Mason said, which means presenting an aesthetic that’s authentic without being distracting.

“Often, period shapes are such that our modern eyes aren’t used to them,” Mason explained.

To ensure that actors’ clothing doesn’t distract from the story being told on stage, modern styles are blended with period-appropriate designs.

Mason and her costume-shop colleagues’ primary job, in other words, is to help a production’s director and cast tell a story, which requires an understanding not only of how things were in a given time period, but how they need to be presented to contemporary audiences.

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