In the 1890s, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created the “Gibson Girl,” who came to define fashion norms in the early 20th century. Sporting tight corsets and hair often coaxed into a bouffant, the women had hourglass figures that continued to shrink as they cinched their waists.
So, imagine costume designer Anne Kennedy’s dilemma when Chautauqua Theater Company’s Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch expressed the desire to stage the 1905 period play Intimate Apparel.
The play ends its run this weekend, with a 2:15 p.m. show Saturday and two shows, 2:15 p.m. and 8 p.m., on Sunday, all in Bratton Theater.
“The goal was for [the costumes] to be as authentic as possible,” Kennedy said. “But how do you make it that authentic when you can’t use antique clothing? Firstly, it is fragile, and, secondly, people’s bodies were smaller at the turn of the 20th century.”
Kennedy worked with CTC’s costume shop to put together some antique outfits for the play.
The costumes of Intimate Apparel were a mix of rented and bought, while some were “built,” or stitched.
Mrs. Dickson’s skirt, seen in the opening scene of the play, has been rented from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“It is the right silhouette for her character,” Kennedy said.
Another method of putting the costumes together is by buying modern things that feel authentic to the time period; for instance, character George Armstrong’s undershirt.
“It’s an old style called the ‘Henley shirt,’ but they are in fashion right now,” Kennedy said.
For Kennedy, the process of designing costumes begins with reading the play, followed by having a conversation with the director about specific characteristics of the characters. Questions about their social statures and financial situations are of key interest to Kennedy.
“Vivienne and I try to get into the daily existence of the characters,” she said.
Kennedy’s thorough research of a particular time period includes looking at photographs and artwork of designers.
“The images help me see how the women rolled their sleeves while working and shapes of their aprons,” she said.
One of the looks for Esther was inspired by an image by American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois who published various books on people of color in America.
Costumes can be an expensive affair, especially in a play like Intimate Apparel, where the title itself emphasizes the importance of fabric and garments. Kennedy decided to spend a considerable amount of the budget on the five beautiful corsets worn by the women.
“In my opinion, the corsets are important vehicles for the storytelling because they speak about class, wealth, constriction and freedom, and those are all themes in the play,” Kennedy said. “We found a company on etsy.com that was affordable. I wanted to control the color, so we bought the fabrics. We send the fabric to them, they made the corsets, and we spend time embellishing them.”
Not all of the work on the corsets could be absolutely authentic. Kennedy admitted cheating where she could.
“The motifs on the corsets should be real embroidery, but we bought some cheap lace, and I cut it apart and sewed it on to mimic embroidery,” she said.
Playwright Lynn Nottage’s thoughts, reflected in the story, are also taken into consideration while designing costumes.
“There is this storytelling of Mr. Marks selling Esther hand-dyed magenta silk, hence Esther stitched Mrs. Van Buren the magenta corset as seen in the first act,” Kennedy said. “We cannot ignore the magenta.”
Research helped Kennedy decide the color of Esther’s wedding corset.
“Research from the time period said that wedding corsets would be in the white and ivory world,” she said.
Mrs. Van Buren is the Manhattan socialite, and therefore wears expensive jewelry.
“In the very beginning, Mrs. Van Buren wears a choker necklace,” Kennedy said. “The pearl choker was in the CTC costume shop stock, except it had a gaudy pearl and rhinestone medallion on it. I took that off and put on my cameo, which was in my personal stock, just so that it is more appropriate for her.”
Cameo jewelry is vintage and Victorian. It is a method of carving engraved gems.
“Mockups for Intimate Apparel were made in the first week [of the season] itself. Since our shopping center is the Chautauqua Mall, … we do a lot of online renting and shopping,” said Janet O’Neil, CTC’s costume shop manager. “Nothing is easy. Costume designing and managing the costume shop is like a scavenger hunt.”