Sometimes passion is ingrained in our subconscious when we are young and other times it takes the shape of an opportunity arbitrarily stumbled upon later in life. For a few students at UNC, this passion is costume design, but their paths to finding their enthusiasm for the art all look very different.
UNC junior Isabella St.Onge discovered her interest in fashion during her childhood. Her mother received a master’s degree in costume design, and St.Onge grew up surrounded by sketches and costuming books. Upon arriving at UNC, she took this fascination with clothing and became involved in student theater groups on campus, including Kenan Theatre Company (KTC) and LAB! Theatre.
St.Onge, having been immersed in the world of fashion from an early age, said psychology is one of the most fascinating and surprising aspects of costume design. This is something she said a lot of people don’t necessarily recognize, but is a fact that exists similarly in the real world, not just within the plot of a play.
“What people wear is very heavily tied with how they think and who they believe they are, or who they want to be,” St.Onge said. “So when you costume design, and when you start to really get the hang of it, you can look around you and see how real people, not just characters, but how real people are thinking.”
On the other end of the spectrum, senior Elisabeth Beauchamp designed costumes for the first time in the middle of her college career when she applied to work in the costume department for UNC Pauper Players’ 2018 production of “Bonnie & Clyde.”
Beauchamp said she quickly learned that successful costume designers have to make snap decisions and stay incredibly organized. The job often requires sewing on the fly and being prepared for the inevitable last minute costume rip or shoe malfunction, and perhaps the most demanding challenge of all: remaining calm through these emergencies.
“I've never used so many Google Docs in my life,” Beauchamp said. “It really teaches you to just keep things organized and get things done and be able to work with other people. It's taught me a lot about stuff like that that doesn't even have to do with costuming.”
But the hard decisions don't only involve opening night crises. They can also be prevalent throughout the entire preparation process, especially for student theater groups with smaller budgets.
After researching the context of the story, scouring the script to sketch out costumes for each character and finalizing measurements for each actor, designers begin the hunt for the most affordable, yet authentic, costumes.
Many groups use the costume collection available at PlayMakers Repertory Company to rent out specific pieces, but if a piece is unavailable in the collection, designers have to source it another way. Often this leads to thrift store excursions or creating costumes from random costume accessories. Beauchamp gave the example of dressing an actress in "Gypsy" for a scene that required a cow costume.
“Since we didn't have enough money to just go buy a cow costume, it was just pulling stuff together,” Beauchamp said. “Buying a white shirt and putting black patches all over it, and getting little cow noses and ears and stuff like that.”
However, with limited funding comes imagination, and this creativity fosters the ideas for some of the most unique shows, St.Onge said.
“You are forced to innovate,” St.Onge said. “You can throw ideas around and just kind of go crazy, and the sky's the limit.”
In addition to being theatrically and financially creative, participating in the costume department requires proficiency in time management between school work, extracurriculars and costuming demands. Senior Karmen Black, who works as an assistant costume designer for PlayMakers and has designed for KTC and LAB!, finds this aspect of costume design one of the most challenging.
“It's super rewarding to get to do it all, but it definitely keeps you super busy,” Black said. “It takes up a lot of free time, but there's nothing else I would rather be doing.”
But Black doesn’t stop designing once she leaves the costume shop. Her involvement in student theater originated from her own personal costume construction for cosplay and from her participation in local Comic-Con events. She said that working in theater costuming has allowed her to be more confident in her personal design work.
“It's helped me push myself to be better because I've seen what I'm capable of and what I could be capable of,” Black said.
Sophomore Zoë Lord got involved with PlayMakers through a work study opportunity her first year and has since worked with Pauper Players and KTC. She discovered that while costume design can be an individually gratifying creative experience, collaborating with other students to put on a show is the most rewarding element of costume design.
“I remember telling an actress, ‘Oh, here's my idea for my costume,’ and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks so good, I think I’m gonna be able to do a really good job in that,’” Lord said. “That always makes me feel really good, when putting costumes on them makes them give a better performance.”
Similarly, for St.Onge, her community's ability to invoke a response from the audience is the most valuable part of her experience and is what keeps her pursuing her lifelong love of costume design.
“You get to love on the people around you, you get to make them look their best, you get to make the act their best on stage, you get to have fun with them, you get to grow with them as friends,” St.Onge said. “I think that's where the most important part of student theater lies, is in the relationships between people.”
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