Behind the Seams

By / 12th of August, 2014

IT’s not just the actors who bring characters to life, but the costumes. State Theatre Company of South Australia costume designer Ailsa Paterson talks us through the process for their current play The Importance of Being Earnest.

First off, Ailsa discusses artistic director Geordie Brookman’s vision for the look of the play. She then begins drawing her ideas, from the overall look to small details, and creates a colour story and silhouette for each character.

“For example, Lady Bracknell is statuesque and has quite sharp lines on her clothing, as opposed to Cecily, who has really soft, feminine lines. At that time there were two styles for women, one was a quite masculine tailoring and the other one was called lingerie dress, which was a lot softer and embellished, so there’s a nice contrast in those looks and we’ve managed to get both in the play.”

Everything goes into a folder for each character, which Ailsa gradually refines to the core ideas. From this, she produces the final drawings for the final costume presentation – which she finds both exciting and nerve-wracking. If all goes well, she then presents the drawings to the costume makers.

“If they get excited and say they really want to make that, you know you’ve got it right,” she says.

The designs agreed on, the next step is looking at the practical side, such as budgets, what fabrics are available, and what existing stock can be re-used or redesigned.

Ailsa completes the technical drawings, which show details such as seam lines and structure. Then she talks to the costume makers about how they’d make it and it develops from there.

Who will be playing the characters also comes into consideration.

“I might have only seen a headshot of the actor and until you actually meet them and talk about their vision for the character, and also see what’s going to fit them… all of those things add a whole other element.”

The Importance of Being Earnest has seven actors and nine characters, and all of the female characters’ costumes have been made from scratch.

“It’s a huge undertaking because they have several changes, it’s not just a gown each. Plus there’s capes, hats, wigs...”

When the costume changes occur also affect the design – if it’s at interval, there’s more time to get changed, but mid-scene requires a quicker change.

“Rory Walker is playing both servants. One servant is underdressed and the other one has a jacket that has the waistcoat and a fat suit built in so Rory can just pull that on.”

The next stage is to make the toile – the costumes made in plain linen to test the patterns. The actors are also fitted to these, and only then are the costumes made in the final fabrics.

“As I see the garment emerging, when it starts to be realised in real fabric, that’s so exciting. And it’s interesting watching the actors take themselves in when they first put the costume on. With the restrictions of corsets, enormous sleeves and a skirt with a train, you have to turn in a certain way; they all practice sitting down in the fitting.”

Accessories, trims, etc. complete the looks. Ailsa works closely with Jana DeBiasi in the wardrobe team for the wigs, which can be full or hairpieces, to choose colours and styles, as well as hats, makeup and other finishing touches. Everything comes together in the dress rehearsals.

“I’m always hugely nervous on opening night whenever there’s a new costume about to come on.”

The Importance of Being Earnest runs until 16 August in Adelaide and then tours to Canberra (19-23 Aug), Geelong (28-30 Aug) and Wollongong (2-6 Sept).