Costume shop blends Victorian silhouettes with modern accents


Costume assistant Hannah Wald of Wapto, Wa., sews a costume for the upcoming Chautauqua Theater Company production of “Three Sisters.” The costumes were researched and designed to have a Victorian look accompanied with modern touches. Photo by Megan Tan.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Theater Company costume shop is accustomed to the process of constructing garments for plays, but a modern twist on Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” has made this time a unique blend of Victorian and modern styles.

Olivera Gajic, designer of the costumes for the production, said she has worked with Brian Mertes, director of the production, approximately a dozen times on past productions, and nearly half of those times involved Chekhov plays. This has allowed them to develop a comfortable system for getting the design of costumes fitted with each play and character.

Gajic begins designing costumes by utilizing all of her research resources. This involves doing Internet searches tied to the period in each play, as well as each character in the play.

Gajic said she also references personal collections of photos she has accumulated throughout her career. These include piles of Russian photographs for this play specifically because of its placement in a provincial town in Russia.

“I didn’t go too far from Russia in their looks,” Gajic said.

Audra Vaillancourt, costume shop manager, said that while the process of making the costumes for this show began approximately four weeks ago, Gajic and Mertes began formulating the designs well before the costume shop got involved in the process.

“Once they figure out what the look of the show is, then it can go into the shops,” she said. “The costume shop ends up with a finished design concept, ideally.”

For this show, the shop is constructing approximately a dozen pieces from scratch, Vaillancourt said.

She added that the look of these pieces is “vaguely Victorian with a modern feel,” which involves constructing costumes with layering aspects and adding modern touches.

“We are looking for a silhouette that is Victorian, but it’s not fussy,” Vaillancourt said. “So we don’t have a lot of the crazy details that go into that. It’s just very much the silhouette and then we are adding modern things onto it.”

This involves using the manner in which clothing pieces were cut in the Victorian period without going into too much detail on small touches, such as lace, Gajic said.

Other pieces, such as the traditional Russian uniforms for the male actors, are being purchased or rented and then altered, if necessary, to fit the same look.

Jennifer Saxton, assistant costume shop manager, is responsible for taking the drawn designs from Gajic and turning them into patterns and real garments. She began this process by talking to Gajic about the details of the costume to make sure she interpreted it properly.

Once she determined that she understood Gajic’s vision, Saxton began the draping process, which involved beginning to construct the costume on a dummy similar to each actor’s size.

“Draping is one of those things that takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master,” Saxton said. “It’s like trying to wrap a crazy present.”

In this show, many of the fabrics for the costumes are silk chiffons and other “light, airy fabrics,” Saxton said. This makes constructing pieces a little more difficult.

“It’s like sewing dewdrops and cobwebs,” Saxton said. “It’s beautiful, and it moves great, but it’s more difficult sometimes to sew that.”

While the costume shop has been hard at work on each costume for “Three Sisters,” Vaillancourt said alterations could be made up until the final rehearsal if pieces are not working properly for what the actors need.

Overall, Gajic said she wants audiences to view the costumes as part of each character in the production, rather than viewing costumes as separate from the characters.

“Costume really helps actors form character,” Gajic said. “They have to wear it to be it. It’s not that I’m just putting clothes on them; it’s that I’m creating a character.”