Thursday, July 03, 2008

Warriors, princesses and sorceresses, oh my!

I love costume shops.

In my life, I've been able to see (and sometimes rummage around in) the costume shops at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Cedar Point Amusement Park, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Broadway Costume Rentals and my high school. This is not an impressive list to people in the business. However, to a theatre layman like myself, it's huge.

When I read, I get completely lost in a very visual world that is being described by the words on the page. It's like I act out the scenes in my head, like when you imagine conversations that you wish had gone differently or even when you dream. As I've mentioned this before, this often results in catatonic reading that I don't realize I'm doing until after I snap out of it. Like Professor Godbole says, "But how, if there is such an event, can it be remembered afterwards? How can it be expressed in anything but itself? Not only from the unbeliever are the mysteries hid, but the adept himself cannot retain them. He may think, if he chooses, that he has been with God, but as soon as he thinks it, it becomes history, and falls under the rules of time." Occasionally, when I come out of the ecstatic state, I have a deep desire to maintain and continue the experience in some way. Like keeping the balloon suspended in the air with light taps. When I was younger, this impulse took the form of wanting to surround myself in the clothing that the characters wore, especially characters in novels where the heroines wore medieval-style outfits. Bodices, mutiple skirts, cloaks, peasant blouses. I wanted these things. Have you ever seen Labyrinth? I hadn't then, but if I had, I would have been eternally jealous of Sarah.

More often than not, the impulse would fade and I would forget my desires until I had another literary episode and then the longing would begin again. But since I had very few sewing skills and no money to spend on expensive costumes ($100 - gasp), I did without.

Imagine my delight when I entered high school and got access to my first costume closet. It was a giant collection of fanciful clothing that included just about every outfit that I had ever imagined myself wearing while immersed in a book. When it was left unlocked, I stole away to stroke the textures and to explore the construction with inquisitive fingers while holding pieces up to myself in front of the mirror.

Costume shops are important because each piece takes hours (10 to 40) to construct and a fair amount of cash for materials, not to mention somewhat advanced crafting skills. Average people just don't have the resources to devote to making costumes that theaters do. We have, you know, jobs and families and household chores. But for costumers, it IS their job to create these things.

I just recently returned from a trip to Miami to visit my friend Camilla, who is cut from almost the exact same cloth that I am, and who moved to Miami to be the costume director for the Florida Grand Opera. She has three degrees in either fashion or costume design and is amazing. We met while we worked at the Renaissance Faire and she designed and made my wedding dress. Since the season is over for the summer, she's the only employee there and she let me wander around while she got some work done.

When I enter a costume shop, I'm overwhelmed by the combination of industrial decor and the casualness with which these individual objects of my intense desires are simply smooshed together on the rack.

For instance, upon walking up to this rack labeled "cloaks and capes," I'm first just struck dumb. Do you know how badly I wanted a cloak? I made a purple cotton one for my friend Dan for our Junior Honors Medievalfest but I still have the yards and yards of forest green wool that I bought for my own but never had the courage to actually cut. Ultimately, I found a basic one at a thrift store for $18 and actually got to wear it on the 6 cool days I experienced during 5 years working at the Faire.

But Camilla's shop has dozens of all colors and styles. How could I not love this one?Can you picture the dramatic entrance I could make in it, pulling back the hood to reveal a tumble of raven hair belying my female status to an inn that assumed the rough-and-tumble adventurer must be a man?

Occasionally, I have pretty-girl fantasies and so buckets of parasols catch my fancy, as well.Must preserve my alabaster skin, you know.

Costume shops are also fun because most have been around for decades. Since pieces can be used again and again for different productions in new combinations, when you look at a wall of belts, you'll find antique purple velvet belts and pouches sharing the same space as newer plain brown belts. Notice that the purple is faded on the side that faces out compared to the lining.

To survive this long, older pieces have to have been well-constructed and that care and diligence is reflected in the little details. Look at the needlework on this one.Even the more modern pieces have amazing details that no one in the audience will ever appreciate. It just looks like a big blur to them but if it were missing, the costumes would look flat. Less like clothing and more like Halloween, which would pull their focus away from the experience.This dress has layers and layers of small shapes appliqued individually to create the gauzy magical look.

Another delight of costume shops for me is that people that work there tend to have similar aesthetic sensibilities to mine. Actually, of the three colleagues that Camilla got a chance to introduce to me, two assumed that I was "in the business." In bewilderment I asked her what made them think that. She said I just looked like someone who would be.

Lots of costume people love vintage stylings and details that make objects special in addition to being utilitarian. Although the wig staff could have easily just bought a standard barbershop chair. Instead, someone found and paid for this beautiful antique chair. Look at it! It even still has the attached ash tray for when the whole world walked around in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
You push the button to open the hatch that lets the ashes drop into the compartment below. It just makes me grin with delight that such a beautiful piece of furniture still gets used.

Camilla has one hard and fast rule in the costume shop. Apparently, this is a really hard concept for many of the singers to get. Luckily, she has the ability to send them home and not to pay them for the fitting if they disobey. She has stories about sticking her hand down the top of the back of someone's pants in order to pin the seam only to receive the nasty shock of her skin coming into contact with a man's sweaty, hairy butt. Apparently, he thought the sign didn't apply to him.

So, when I turned a corner and saw this shot framed in front of me, I had to take a picture and title it "Butts."

A companion to that shot is called, "Heads."

Thank you for being my friend, Camilla. Thank you also for letting me fall deep down inside my imagination, where I am a warrior. And a princess. And a sorceress.


duckbill said...

"Occasionally, when I come out of the ecstatic state, I have a deep desire to maintain and continue the experience in some way."

just curious if you could/would give more details about this. how frequently do you enter your 'reading zone' while reading for pleasure? and how frequently do you have this deep desire to maintain the experience--is it every time you're 'in the zone'? (i did see the 'occasionally'--was that an intentional understatement?)

do you find it is hard to fulfill the need to prolong the rapture? do you have a significant amount of depression or experience deep loss or boredom when you are unable (due to time, mood, resources or capabilities) to continue the sense of being swept away in the fantasy?

i know these questions must seem quite pestersome (consider it coined!) and if they are too probing i apologize. something you said here just really struck a chord in me and i'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

sean (feeling spoiled by your recent prodigious level of output)

duckbill said...

ok, just re-read my comment and realized it sounded like a Dianetics commercial. sorry.

adult halloween costumes said...

Wow, great look at some cool costume shops... Something we lack much of here in the southwest. I also noticed that those antique chairs are identical to my barber's (minus the ashtray). Small world!!