Clothes call: With attention to detail, Fresno State’s costume shop builds image of 1947

By Selina Falcon

An unfinished pastel pink blouse with white polka-dots adorns a mannequin in the Fresno State costume shop. It’s elegant with soft, flowy sleeves and sheer fabric. It will belong to Blanche, the main character in University Theatre’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Kathleen McKinley.

“The costumes are going to be period and reminiscent – make you feel that you’re watching something that’s from 1947,” McKinley says. “However, theater is not a museum. Just because something is time period accurate, your audience is not from 1947. All of our costumes have to help the audience understand.”

A mannequin in Fresno State’s costume shop wears what will become a blouse for Blanche. Top: Costume renderings for “A Streetcar Named Desire” are pinned to a wall in the Fresno State costume shop. Photo / Selina Falcon

For the costume shop, work begins two months ahead of opening night.

“In general, I like to be able to start work a minimum of eight weeks from first dress rehearsal,” says Kristine Doiel, a costume design professor at Fresno State. “We do seven shows in the [costume] shop over the course of the year, so there’s a lot of overlap of different projects, but I started meeting with the director, I want to say, early March.”

The first step in costume design is authentic historical research, McKinley says. “And then we create my vision of this world – the Kathleen McKinley vision of ‘Streetcar.’”

Doiel says she spends a lot of time researching, often using Pinterest boards to organize her ideas. For “Streetcar,” she says she began with general ideas – streetcars, the 1940s and typical fashion of that time – and then moved to specifics.

“We have some very minor characters that are sort of background characters,” she explains. “One of them’s a street vendor, and we have a couple of prostitutes, and we have a sailor. So then I can do specific things – what did those people wear?”

Doiel says that Blanche “puts out this idea that she’s this demure Southern woman,” while her sister, Stella, “lives as sort of a working-class type character who happens to be Polish.”

“There’s kind of this contrast of lifestyles,” Doiel says. “So Blanche is in all these pastel colors, and the other characters are in more earth tones and primary-type colors.”

For this production, Doiel says four full outfits are being built. Blanche’s first outfit is a skirt, blouse, cape and hat. Dressing gowns are being built for her and Stella, who also gets a sundress.

Doiel says she purchased two vintage dresses for Blanche, but most of the costumes are coming from the costume collection in the shop, which, according to McKinley, includes authentic costumes from the ‘40s.

Doiel says it always depends on the show if costumes are going to be built.

“We’ve had this conversation in faculty meetings when we’re planning for the next season. They’re like, ‘Well don’t you have a big collection of 16th century clothes?’ It’s like, well, even if I do have a big selection of that, it may not be at all appropriate for the particular production we’re doing,” she says. “Each time we do a show, there’s a different set of parameters and ideas that you have to figure out.”

Fresno State student Christian Mattos works in the costume shop on a piece for “Streetcar” as part of lab hours for a class. Photo / Selina Falcon

Fresno State students and staff are among those who have a hand in building the costumes. Doiel says two staff members are trained in costumes. One of them is what is called a “Cutter/Draper.”

“She patterns everything, and then students do have a hand in building things, but completely under her supervision,” Doiel says. “So she might go, ‘OK, here’s the skirt,’ and she’ll tell them how to put it together.”

Doiel says there are opportunities for experienced students who have been through the theater program to work on special projects. For “Streetcar,” the script called for a gold dress, which the shop did not have in stock, so she allowed a student to make it.

“It’s kind of a weird thing because normally we wouldn’t go to that much trouble for a dress,” Doiel says. “It’s just a prop, but it’s the type of thing that we can then put in stock and rent it out, and that gives [the student] an opportunity to build a period garment.”

One of Doiel’s favorite parts of working on “Streetcar” is seeing her designs be realized on stage.

“I enjoy doing the research and creating a design and seeing it brought to life. Having things built isn’t a luxury that you always have, [but] we have the resources for that.”

Through her position as a costume designer, Doiel says she “always [likes] to convey how much work and thought goes into costume design and the creation of the costumes.”

“It’s not as simple as just getting a dress and putting it on a person. There’s so much we have to do in thinking about what are the right colors, and the right silhouettes, and all those things,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who have their hands in the process, and that tends to surprise people.”

VIDEO: Take a tour of the costume shop

Selina Falcon is a senior Print Journalism major at Fresno State. She will graduate in May and hopes to pursue a career in music journalism. 

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