Clothes Make the Man
As I write this, there are petticoats piled on the floor beside me and 1950s style dresses hanging in the doorway. I’m in the midst of costuming West Side Story for ONU, and soon I will tackle the job of costuming Acting Out’s production of Sweeney Todd to be staged this summer. I find myself thinking, “How did I get myself into this?” Let’s just say I’m blaming it on my mother, who lives 500 miles away! No, really. My mother was of the generation that thought every girl should know how to sew.
I hated learning to sew, but I have loved knowing how to sew. I also blame it on my husband, who is the one-person Theatre Department at ONU. I feel guilty if I don’t help him! And I don’t really mind. As a person who has spent the last 36 years in high school English classrooms or public school libraries, I’ve spent most of my life working with words. But I have found the sewing and designing endeavors through the years to be a creative outlet for me.
I rely on a vivid imagination when I costume a show. I was the child who always saw dragons and German Shepherds and Australia in fluffy clouds. I rely on this imagination when I scour St. Vincent’s or the Salvation Army Thrift Store for articles of clothing I might use in a show.
I understand that the costumes the actors wear will feed the imaginations of the audience this summer in Sweeney Todd. Because of the costumes, the imaginations of the audience will transform their friends and neighbors into a nineteenth-century beggar woman, a lecherous judge, or the worst pie-maker in London.
And the costumes also feed the imaginations of the actors themselves. I remember seeing Sean Penn interviewed after the release of “I Am Sam.” The interviewer asked him, “How do you get into the mindset of all the various characters you have played?” I remember him saying, “The hair. Once the hair is right, it kinda goes from there.” I think the costumes are even more powerful. Your outward appearance affects your inner life. People dress to impress. High school boys walk a little taller when they are dressed up for prom. When we get home from work and put on our jammies, our entire being relaxes.
And when the cast of Sweeney Todd gets dressed in their frock coats, their crinoline skirts, and their waistcoats, they will be transform
ed from the outside in. The clothes do indeed make the man.
By Lynda Cohagan