When watching a performance presented by the College of Arts and Architecture, you immediately notice the costumes that the performers wear. You might be wondering how they managed to get their hands on these costumes. While it would be easy to say that the departments bought these costumes pre-made, some of them are actually made from scratch by students.
Where exactly can students make the costumes? There is a costume shop inside Robinson Hall where students can learn to make costumes that will be used for the upcoming performances. It is managed by Professor Hali Hutchinson who is currently working on an upcoming play called “Blues for an Alabama Sky.”
When working at the costume shop, it has to be noted that learning to sew is a skill. Hutchinson is aware that students can get easily frustrated by the difficulty of learning to sew for the first time. “It’s something that you get better and better at with repetition.” she said. She also takes into account how students learn, whether they learn by watching the instructor or from spoken instructions.
According to the Head of Costume Design of the Department of Theatre, Professor Aly Amidei, the costume shop can also be a place where students learn the skills of modifying, such as sewing or altering a suit. “That room is a learning space, classroom space and a production space.” she said.
When picking a play, a faculty meeting is held where they propose and vote on a production. They also factor in personal interests, student interest and impact on the campus. “We pick them by the impact they will have on in terms of campus culture [sic], or [if they are] something that can be good for the world a[t] certain given time. Or sometimes we pick them for fun.” Amidei said.
An ultimate decision is made by the chair of the department, Dr. Lynne Conner. Afterward, the department will see if they can get the rights for the proposed play.
Timeline wise, productions are chosen a year before they are performed. The process of planning costumes starts a semester before the showcase. The choice of play can have an effect on the production and preparations of the costumes. Depending on the semester and the season, the department will determine how to prepare for the upcoming events.
The department also takes into account the students’ skill set to determine what they would design for the play. If they have less experience working on certain aspects of the costumes, employees of the costume shop will help assist the class.
According to Amidei, there are two parts when it comes to teaching students in the shop. The first part is building the ideas for the costumes. Students start doing research, analyzing the script and understanding the characters. “You [are] kind of creating an image; an idea of what that character/dancer will look like.” she said.
The second part is when you bring these ideas to life. This is where students actually find the materials that will be required to make the costumes. There, students make the costume from scratch or look for clothing/materials from storage or shopping areas. Sometimes the shop may need to rent costumes from other schools or other costume shops. “All of those things are determined by the budget and the time we have for a show,” Amidei said. “We might have tons of budget, but if we have only two weeks to make it happen, that’s not enough time to build something.”
This process is very evident in preparing the costumes for “Blues” as the setting of the play takes place in the 1930s during the Harlem Renaissance. Students spent much of this semester researching and replicating the clothing to fit the setting. From this, students learn to serve the story for what it needs, since some would find it out of place if a style of clothing from another time period appeared in the play.
An example in “Blues” would be the character Delia. She contains a liberal mindset but dresses in a conservative manner. This is done in order for other people to take her seriously about her views. It is these characteristics that will be in a student’s mind when it comes to designing what Delia will look like on stage.
However, some plays aren’t very specific in their costume design. Depending on the play and how open the director is to ideas, designing can go in various directions. Amidei points out that Shakespeare plays can be very open-ended because people have different ways of interpreting those stories.
As the costume designer for “Blues,” Hutchinson is using more practical and fewer builds to fit the students’ time. This means students will be more focused on things such as sewing, suit modifications and hemming.
An example from “Blues” is the dresses. Instead of using polyester, students are using silk or cotton, which is what was used during the 1930s to make dresses. They also have to look at the cotton patterns of a dress to make sure they are very accurate for the time.
The shop features two courses, a practicum and costume tech class. The practicum class is where the costumes are made for the performances; the costume tech class is where students modify clothes that they can wear for themselves.
Students who are not majoring in theatre or dance can register for a class in the costume shop. In fact, you can take many theatre classes without being a theatre major. There will be costume crafts class next semester that will be taught by Amidei. According to her, there are at least three non-major students who are registered for that class. The costume tech class is another common class for non-majors to register for. However, the practicum class is more difficult as it is more major-specific.
Non-major students have also done wardrobe and backstage work. You can go and audition for the department if you desire to do so. “Some of our best student workers have been from other majors,” Amidei said. “If you have the skills, the interest, the time and want money, they often post that job in the fall and spring.”
The costume shop here at UNC Charlotte is a place where students can learn the ropes of designing clothes and costumes for all skill levels. The experience a student can gain here can be a building block for those who wish to pursue a career in costume design. Amidei advises that a student should take as many costume and art history classes as they can. She also believes that you have to be a well-rounded artist. “You have to go out and get it. Most of your jobs will come from word of mouth. You might have to hustle to get that first job. If you’re doing a good job, it usually starts to cascade.”