Two weeks before the opening of “Little Women,” the costume shop in the Walgreen Drama Center hummed with the activity of “stitchers” (sewing professionals) working on laced gloves, full skirts and bowed bonnets for the four March sisters. In the corner of the shop, near the end of a long closet teeming with 1860s-inspired sartorial splendor, hung two matching gold dresses — golden fabric is fine and detailed, skirts long and full, sophisticated jacket lined with a cream-colored ruffle.
Amy, the youngest of the sisters and sweet ingenue in the opera, wears this dress when she returns to her childhood home married to Laurie, her sister Jo’s first love.
“This dress communicates Amy’s big ‘I won’ to Jo,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Corey Davis.
Davis is the costume designer responsible for every skirt, bow and piece of lace under the stitchers’ needles. Amy’s gold dress is one Davis “built” — that is, designed and made from scratch.
“I was so disappointed when I found how quick this scene is, how little stage time the dress is going to get,” he said. “But if the audience doesn’t gasp when it comes on, I won’t notice because I’ll gasp loud enough for everyone.”
Davis’s attachment to his work is understandable. As the costume designer, his role is to support the story on stage through dress and color. Combining considerations of period and character, Davis uses fashion to construct a world on stage. And, if he is successful, the audience can be transported to that world too.
After determining the “silhouette” — the line, size and general shape of the clothing — that was specific to the 1860s, Davis manipulated the fashion to reveal traits of the characters. For instance, Amy’s clothes are pink, “girlier” than her sisters’. Her dresses are full and long, while Jo’s one dress is plain and utilitarian, with a smaller silhouette than Amy’s.
“Jo just doesn’t care about fashion,” Davis said as, like a proud father, he absent-mindedly patted Jo’s skirt on the stitcher’s mannequin.
Meg, the oldest sister who gets married early in the opera, is the most matronly. Davis dressed the character in green, as a reference to motherly fertility. He signified the perpetual innocence of Beth, the frail sister who never matures, with a shortened skirt more suited to running and playing outside than attending the society functions her sisters grow to enjoy.
“You can tell beautiful, quiet, detailed stories with that kind of detail,” said Christianne Myers, assistant professor of theater in MT&D. “You can make all those really specific character-driven, circumstance-driven choices and apply it to a period.”
Like Davis’s gold revelation, Myers has made her share of gasp-inducing outfits. For a 2001 production of “Hair” at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, she created a single red metallic stretch dress worn by three Supremes-inspired characters as they sang and danced. One character wore the center tube dress, flanked by the others who each wore one sleeve. The dress got a round of applause.
“And it should,” Myers said. “But you don’t always want the clothes talking about themselves.”
As Myers suggests, not every costume is meant to be a showstopper. In period pieces like “Little Women” and “Hair,” the audience cannot help but notice and admire the costumes. But for every three-person dress, there are countless scenes in which a T-shirt and jeans should say whatever a T-shirt and jeans can say, and then move on.
For this reason, Myers stresses the importance of costumes that look authentic and wearable.
“I usually talk about them like clothes, not costumes,” she said. “Regardless of period, in the world we’re creating, these are the clothes they would wear. Even though we never see it, there’s a closet somewhere, a theoretical closet that this was pulled from.”
So when we see Amy’s gold dress, we don’t just see a beautiful costume. We see Amy’s newfound wealth, we see what success looks like for a woman of that time period and we see young Amy perhaps showing off a little to her family. With one outfit, we get an explanation of plot, historical context and the character’s motive.
The process of designing “Little Women” began last summer, when Davis received and read the script. He researched fashion from the 1860s, compiling his findings in a book in which he also drew his designs. Now, he keeps the book at hand in the costume shop while he and his stitchers fit costumes.
After researching, Davis spent months gathering material and accessories from stores in Royal Oak and Chicago, finding suitable costumes from rental houses around the country and organizing the items, like petticoats and men’s hats, that the school already had in the costume shop.
“Art is less than half the job,” Myers said, saying budget issues, time frame limitations and the challenge of effective communication are equally trying concerns.
In one of her first experiences working with a cast for whom “acting was their day job,” the director cut a dress she had “built,” a first for her. The production was a re-imagining of “Oedipus,” written and directed by Dare Clubb, for the Blue Light Theatre Company in New York.
“I had to leave the theater and walk around the block,” she said. “The biggest lesson I learned was that yes, I need to invest, but I have to be able to let go.”
It also helped that Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), one of the actors who was to wear the dress, liked the garment so much she took it home.
Whether designing for a modern show or a period piece like “Little Women,” costume designers use the same principles to breathe life into the world in the theater. In the right hands, we can be as taken away by a simple dress meant to fade into the background — like the dress for “Oedipus” — as by Amy’s charmed attire.
When asked what kind of show is her favorite, Myers responded “the one I’m working on.”
But surely it doesn’t hurt when the audience gasps in awe when your gold dress waltzes on stage.