A white dress with ruffles accented with blue lace and ribbons. At first glance, it is a beautiful, feminine dress from the early 20th century. Upon further inspection, one can see the blue lace detailing at the top forming a Star of David around the neck. The neckline rises high up toward the chin, circling tightly around the throat.
Rifkele is the character who wears this dress in Indecent, the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center of Performing Arts’s spring production. Her religiously conservative parents exalt strict control over her, and the lace Star of David around her neck mimics the constrictive environment she lives in. The dress appears to be choking her, representative of how the forces of her family and religion restrict her freedom of who she wants to love.
Costume designers are an integral part of the theater production team, and their work requires not only artistic skill but also creative vision and analytical thinking. The in-depth analysis of how Rifkele’s costume conveys Indecent’s themes is just a fraction of the work Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate student Lia Wallfish, the costume designer for Wirtz’s Indecent, puts in when designing costumes for theater productions.
Wirtz puts on multiple shows every year, and the costume designers play a critical part in the final performances. The costume shop located inside Wirtz is a safe haven for the designers. Bobbins of thread stacked on a rack, various hats strewn across a table, mannequins scattered across the room; the seemingly hectic space is where creativity thrives.
Wallfish has always had a love for design. She went to an arts high school where she could pursue her passion for fashion. It wasn’t until her internship at the Metropolitan Opera, her first experience working with costumes on a large scale, that her interest shifted to costume design.
“That was really my first time I realized how costume design relates to the storytelling and how it can affect the whole production,” Wallfish says. She decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in theater with a concentration in costume design at the University of California, Los Angeles.
MFA graduate student Alaina Moore had a similar journey into costume design. She was a general art and design student at Columbia College Chicago and focused on fashion for a while. She eventually found her way into a theater environment and quickly fell in love with costume design.
“I love being kind of limited in a way by a specific story,” Moore says. “It kind of reigns in what can be a chaotic curiosity that I have about the world.” Other costume designers at Wirtz were drawn to the field as an extracurricular but pursued other academic interests during their undergraduate years. MFA graduate student Ben Kress majored in psychology at Kenyon College. During his junior year, he took a costume design class for fun. He fell in love with it and began working on student productions, using work-study hours to spend time in the costume shop.
“It’s such an ecosystem, a sort of system ofAlaina Moore
MFA graduate student
“It felt in line with why I was interested in psychology, too, because it’s really just exploring why we are who we are and who we can be but through art,” Kress says. Eventually, this extracurricular passion became a post-graduation internship at a theater in Baltimore, Maryland, which turned into a professional career for over six years.
Eventually, this extracurricular passion became a post-graduation internship at a theater in Baltimore, Maryland, which turned into a professional career for over six years.
Storytelling is an essential component of every show and is also integral to the costume designer’s creative process. Costume designers help bring characters to life and directors’ visions to fruition.
Wallfish briefly worked in the costume departments of television series like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, but she says the creative freedom and storytelling of theater create a more enticing expression of artistry. Moore agrees the storytelling and collaborative aspect drew her away from fashion and into costume design.
“It’s such an ecosystem, a sort of system of storytelling, and I really love that about it,” Moore says. “I love that the collaborative aspect of theater gets me out of my own head and my own creative imagination and makes it this whole community coming together to tell a story.”
Kress values storytelling and its effects on the characters he’s working on. He recognizes that clothes are often the first thing a person sees about a character, and audiences can form many impressions about a character at first glance.
“I’ve been thinking about my art as a kind of a conversation in that way,” Kress says. “When this character shows up on stage, you’re thinking about, ‘What is the first thing you want the audience to hear?’”
During Fall Quarter, Kress was the costume designer for the Wirtz production Me…Jane, a show about Jane Goodall, the famous anthropologist who worked closely with chimpanzees. He connected with the production because he could follow her real-life journey of connecting with nature and becoming an environmental activist. Kress explored themes of sustainability to guide his designs for the show; most of the clothes were thrifted, and a prop chicken was made entirely out of discarded denim.
The creative process
Wallfish has an elaborate creative process for designing the final costume. After receiving the show’s script, she reads through it once without making any notes. Next, she re-reads the script and takes notes about the time period, location and descriptors of the characters. She then does visual research for costume design and world-building. After meeting with the director and discussing a shared vision for the production, she begins creating quick gesture drawings which will later become the final renderings.
Moore has a similar process involving an analysis of the script, in-depth historical research and designing the final image. She prefers to use a collage technique to create the final renderings of costumes.
Moore implements the historical research into the design but also likes to break away from historical conventions, updating costumes based on a liberal interpretation of the text. Evidence of Moore’s intermingling of historical fact and creative exploration can be seen in the bridal gown worn in Blood Wedding, the Wirtz show she was the costume designer for during Winter Quarter.
The wedding dress is a black Victorian lace gown, as described in the original play. The bridal gown is black, as is the traditional style of wedding gowns from Andalusia, Spain, the region where the story takes place. Moore maintained the Victorian style in the angular neckline but modernized the rest of the dress. She formed lines in the skirt of the dress to mimic the Art Deco style of the 1930s, which is when the play was written.
Rifkele’s dress from the musical Indecent (left) and the sketch that Wallfish used to conceptualize initial ideas for the costume (right). The blue lace detailing at the top is meant to form a Star of David.
Staging for shows can also create unique challenges for costume designers. In Indecent, all performers remain on stage and visible to the audience the entire time. Each actor plays multiple roles throughout the play and has numerous costume changes that have to occur while on stage.
“We’re actually using a lot of magnets for this show because it’s much faster than velcro or snaps,” Wallfish says. “It’s much easier for the actress to get it right.”
Before coming to Northwestern, Kress had the opportunity to design costumes for community organizations that put on shows for prisoners. The prison environment posed a creative challenge; security limited many common items from being brought into the prison, such as sneakers.
“There’s few things you can bring in there, so the whole world has to be basically on their bodies,” Kress says. “You have to do all the world-building kind of involved in the clothes, and we still got to be super creative.”
This process of adapting to different environments, audiences, director’s suggestions and more poses a creative challenge that requires designers to be open to constant change and not become too attached to their first rendering.
“Costume design is an expression of art, and I love myself as an artist,” Kress says. “Maybe one day, I’ll want to express that in a different way, and that’s an openness to change that I hope to continue to foster here.”