For instance, renowned designer Barbara Matera explained that when Glenn Close first tried on the Norma Desmond costume described above, she "winced under its weight" (New York's Top Costume Shop Reveals Its Secrets 1996:3). The costume's designer, Anthony Powell, instructed Close to turn around and face the mirror, and "upon seeing the stunning result her whole attitude changed" (4). Other anecdotal accounts on the design process from Matera included: "We love shows that have underwear scenes" (referring to bustles, corsets, and pantaloons), and "bird costumes can be very taxing"; these comments provide some insight into the creative challenges that face costume designers and makers today.
Each character that appears in a production must be individually assessed, and gradually each movement of each character and each costume must then be integrated into a cohesive whole that presents the imagery desired. "At any rate," Cole et al. say, "slowly, harmoniously, must the whole design develop, so that the eye of the beholder shall be satisfied" (153). In this regard, the artists who have worked with Aldredge had consistently pointed to the high quality of workmanship and design, but another common theme that emerges from the research is the genius that Aldredge brings to the table in combining distinctly effective design elements that specifically evoke the historical periods involved while appealing to modern audiences.
This is not a talent that can be learned, perhaps, but simply refined over the years as designers gain the experience and wisdom that comes from hundreds of productions and having worked with a number of talented people. In their biography, the Costume Designers Guild (2004) reports that Aldredge is "a meticulous and tireless researcher as well as a fine and dedicated illustrator. Her touch is elegant and subtle, her color palate poignant rather then strident. Those who work with her share an admiration for her work style and dedicate approach to costume design" (3). According to Heather Wisner's article, "Dressed and Impressed" (2002), the professional artists who have worked with Aldredge have extensive experience in all facets of the industry and they have all worked in dance and performed theater and plays. Wisner reports that these artists have enjoyed what they were given to wear by Aldredge and that her designs "evoke what people really wore using modern materials and their imagination. it's really hard trying to get the best of both worlds" (52).
From Payne's perspective, "Costumes, like properties, are all-important to the actor; they concern him more directly than any property or item of setting. Every designer should be able to design costumes and know the fundamental practices of costume construction" (71). In his book, the Dramatic Imagination, Robert Edmond Jones (1941) made several excellent points concerning the design of costumes:
In learning how a costume for the stage is designed and made, we have to go through a certain amount of routine training. We must learn about patterns, and about periods. We have to know what farthingales are, and wimples, and patches and caleches and parures and godets and appliques and passementerie. We have to know the instant we see and touch a fabric what it will look like on the stage both in movement and in repose. We have to develop the brains that are in our fingers. We have to experiment endlessly until our work is as nearly perfect as we can make it, until we are, so to speak, released from it.... (in Payne 71).
In recent years, though, Aldredge has appeared to lead the way for other designers away from the romantic conception of costume design. Payne says that, "More and more, dress for the stage is 'selected' rather than designed, assembled rather than constructed" (72). This author identified an early trend wherein costume designers were beginning to use old clothes found in secondhand stores and out of attics instead of constructing costumes from brand new fabrics, and then having them aged and broken down after they are completed. "Some designers will in fact, when designing costumes that are required to show great use and age, find their materials in old ready-made garments and then, after taking these garments apart, recut them into new patterns for costumes completely different from their original purpose and use" (Payne 73). In recent years, there has also been a corresponding rise in interest in more exotic materials, not only synthetic fabrics, but plastics, metals, furs, and leather as well. Payne notes that the introduction of fiber glass cloth and strands, as well as other plastic impregnated materials that harden when exposed to chemical treatment, have provided costume designers with a wide range of opportunities that were not possible just a few years ago.
According to Payne, if there is one major discernible trend in the progress of costume design during these past several decades, it is that costume designers have become less and less "just a dressmaker," and "more and more a highly creative and independent artist whose techniques and artistry extend much further than just knowing how to sew a straight seam, cut a pattern, or dye a piece of cloth" (Payne 73). In this regard, one actor described an Aldredge costume thusly: "The Sally Bowles costume doesn't duplicate what Liza Minnelli wore in the movie, but it is in keeping with the Weimar era. The costume is just beautiful; it's tasteful and sexy. It looks period but it also dances and breathes -- it fulfills the requirements brilliantly" (Wisner 53). Much like the observational approach to humor used by Jerry Seinfeld, Aldredge has clearly managed to keep closely in touch with the cultural icons that have historically characterized American society and seems to instinctively know what will work on stage and what will not in tying such imagery to her costume designs.
For example, when Amanda McKerrow, principal dancer, was asked what her favorite Aldredge design was for a stage production by the American Ballet Company, she suggested that her favorite was a design that was evocative of the once-popular television series, "I Dream of Jeannie":
guess I would have to say the costume from the snake scene in Act I. it's gauzy silk chiffon, harem pants and, in some productions, a bare midriff -- maybe someone didn't want us showing our tummies, so ours have netting. There's a long turban with a scarf, and beautiful, intricate beading -- I had an I Dream of Jeannie fantasy when I was a kid, so it's great. it's very comfortable, although at one point I do a tour jete to one knee, and I cut up my knee pretty badly the first time because I didn't move the beading out of the way (53).
A fairly recent review* by David Barbour of "The Spitfire Grill," a new but implausible show presented at Playwrights Horizons and taken from the 1995 film, about a young woman who, just released from prison, moves to a dying small town and changes the lives of everyone there, shows that Aldredge still has what it takes to make or break a theatrical production: "It's a sentimental tale -- barely plausible at times -- and not really my kind of show. Yet, thanks to the first-rate [design elements of Aldredge], I found myself deeply moved" (27).
The research showed that Theoni V. Aldredge has designed costumes for more than 200 Broadway shows, including "Annie," "Barnum," "La Cage aux Folles," and "A Chorus Line," and received an Irene Sharaff award for lifetime achievement from the Theatre Development Fund in 2002. Aldredge is married to actor Tom Aldredge and she was inducted into the Theater Hall of fame in 1986; she was later awarded the New York Liberty Medal. Her Broadway and off-Broadway credits are extensive, and include over 20 years as Principal Designer for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival.
Awards & Prizes. (May 2002). American Theatre, 19(5):9.
Barbour, David. (2001). You'll know who. Entertainment Design, 11:27.
Barnes, Denise. (May 28, 1998). Columnist Will Tell Times Readers Where Bargains Are. The Washington Times, 10.
Brennan, Sandra. (2004). The New York Times Movie Guide: Biographies. Available: http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=79275&mod=bio.
Cole, Toby and Helen Chinoy Krich. Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theater. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
Davis, Fiona. (May 2002). Industry Scuttlebutt. Stage Directions, 15(5):8.
Hischak, Thomas S. Stage it with Music: An Encyclopedic Guide to the American Musical Theatre. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Jones, Robert Edmond. The Dramatic Imagination. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1941 in Payne 1974.
Lampert-Greaux, Ellen. (2002). Theoni V. Aldredge: Winner of the 2002 Irene Sharaff Award - ED Salutes. Entertainment Design, 4:37.
New York's Top Costume Shop Reveals Its Secrets. (September 30, 1996). The New York Public Library: Press Release. Available: http://www.nypl.org/press/matera.cfm
Owen, Bobbi. Costume Design on Broadway: Designers and Their Credits, 1915-1985. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Payne, Darwin Reid. Design for the Stage: First Steps. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
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