Picture this: 1937, an English country house, Tommy Dorsey on the phonograph, your hand still chilled from shaking that dry martini. Simply lovely. But what the in the world are you wearing? Perhaps a beaded chiffon creation, or that go-to black velvet frock you’ve had since the fall of ‘35. These are the questions I have the pleasure of answering daily.
When approaching a piece like “Blithe Spirit,” my goal is to make people look like real people, not a bunch of actors in 2012 dressing up in costumes. I have a near obsession with all things vintage and old, especially the time period in which we have decided to set “Blithe Spirit.” While it originally opened in London’s West end in 1941 at the height of the Blitz, “Blithe Spirit” calls back that pre-war ease and glamour, something I especially wanted to convey in the design of the show.
To create “clothing” rather than “costumes” of the time, I always begin by looking at original fashion images and sewing patterns from the period. This is easy with 20th century shows because many companies now produce exact reproductions of sewing patterns from these time periods. I then look at what we currently have in our costume stock and to various sources like Ebay, Etsy, and online vintage shops for ready-made clothing that fits with the concept of the show. Pulling, purchasing, and ultimately creating new garments to fill in the gaps.
Original fashion images used as inspiration for Elvira (left) and Ruth (right).
Specifically with “Blithe Spirit,” we have created and produced many of the dresses for the show in our costume shop. We have used reproduction patterns from 1932-1937, modern fabrics of the same type and weight the dresses would have been made from, and a few lucky finds of unused fabric from the time. This may be where I sound a bit crazy, but there is something magical about taking a piece of 80 year old fabric and creating a garment from an 80 year old pattern. They were meant to go together; we just had to do it.
Looking at designs from other productions of “Blithe Spirit,” the ghosts always seem to be done in a gray scale with washed out hair and make-up. From the start, director Jeff Haslow and I wanted to go in a different direction. Looking at original evening gowns from the 1930’s, a clear color pattern formed. Countless examples of scarlet and sapphire dresses turned up. This became the color story for the design of the production, with Elvira taking the scarlet “hot” tones and Ruth taking the sapphire “cool” tones. From here, I began to incorporate the blue throughout Ruth’s living dresses and intensifying the palette after her death. Husband Charles remains neutral throughout with hints of his wives popping up through a carnation buttonhole, a sweater vest, a tie, etc. Madam Arcati, the eccentric psychic, takes a coppery natural palate with accessories rooted in nature and eccentric details such as Victorian jewelry, a turban, and an oversized carpet bag.
Elvira (left) and Ruth (right). Ruth’s blouse is one of the garments constructed in the costume shop with original fabric from the time period.
The back of Elvira’s dress (left), with an original buckle from the 1930’s.
Overall, as with any design, we aim to have all of the pieces come together in a pleasing cohesive picture, with the details connecting the actors and furthering the characters’ impact on stage. When you see “Blithe Spirit,” which opens February 3, witness how these minute details in design, color and construction come together to aid the actors in their craft and support the intentions of the playwright.