Monday, June 11, 2012

You know you're a costume geek when...

My sister-in-law, Hillary, asked a very valid question: why am I in London to begin with?  Which made me realize how sad it is that in two weeks of blogging not only have I covered only four days of my trip, but I also haven't even mentioned my purpose in coming to the UK at all.  And now we're home and we need to get this trip written up!

That being said, I spent three weeks in London for a class called "Costume and Character: 18th and 19th Century English Costume and Society" led by my costume design professor at IU.  We lived in Nido Spitalfields, the tallest student housing building in the world.  It's a horribly modern building that, strangely enough, I didn't take any pictures of.

Left: Our housing, photo courtesy of the Nido Spitalfields website. Right: Our class building.

Classes were held a couple miles away in a building just around the corner from the British Museum.  We only met for class about six times and three of those were led by amazing guest lecturers:
  1. Hallie Rubenhold 18th century historian, author, and an altogether very impressive woman.  Gave an incredible lecture on 18th century society.
  2. Matt Wolf American who moved to London to become a theatre critic with an American perspective, a niche market, apparently.  Now a critic and professor.  He spoke to us about what theatre is like in London vs. in the States.
  3. Collin Teevan an Irishman who does not identify himself as an Irish playwright.  Spoke to us about English Theatre and the future of English identity.
Before the program started we each picked a play to focus our studies on.  I chose The School For Scandal because I am designing it in the Spring.  We were given five assignments usually relative to the museums we were scheduled to visit.  Some of the assignments were to help us develop a better understanding of the time period and characters in our chosen play, other assignments were given to help us look at and interpret primary research.  For example, one assignment for the National Portrait Gallery had us pick five portraits and discuss what each portrait says about the sitter; their social status, profession, how the sitter wants to be perceived, symbols in the picture, etc.  For the Victoria & Albert Museum we were to choose five objects (at least one portrait, one textile, and one furnishing) that reminded us of a character, theme, or concept of our play and write about it.

 Late 18th century Polonaise dress in the V&A, and a portrait I selected from the V&A: Three Eldest Daughters of George III

By the end of the class we were to give a full character analysis and initial design concept for five characters.

Much of the education, therefore, took place outside of the classroom.  We had five assigned museum visits: Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern, National Portrait Gallery, the Fan Museum, and Bath Fashion Museum (actually a two day trip to Bath); a day trip to Straford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare; we visited two Costume suppliers: Angel's Costumiers and Rainbow Productions; and we got to tour the Royal Opera House and see four theatre productions.  Not to mention how inspiring London is in general.  It is filled with so much history, beautiful art and architecture - much of which is 18th century - and the personal fashion of Londoners is incredibly interesting.  The museums were invaluable resources and I made sure to return to the Portrait Gallery one more time and the V&A two more times (once was to see a really cool workshop on the make up, costume, and performance of the traditional Kathakali dance of India - super cool!).  Basically, I tried to take advantage of as many opportunities to experience what London has to offer and learn everything I could before we had to leave.

Two of our excursions weren't related to the historical portion of the course, but were awesome to visit as a costumer.  One was to the costume rental house Angel's Costumiers.  Angel's is one of the world's leading film, TV, and theatre rental houses and has costumed many many movies and shows we all know such as Titanic, Downton Abbey, Braveheart, Hugo, Star Wars, Harry Potter ... and the list goes on and on.  They have a shop where they build from scratch and restore items from stock, and a HUGE stock.  Our tour guide, Mark, was amazing and hilarious and he let us take pictures!

Costumes for Anonymous and a rack of costumes for Downton Abbey!

Organization is key!  You know you're a costume geek when you document brilliant but simple ways professionals use to organize stock.
Left: A portion of the military badges and patches; Right: hand drawn labels for Elizabethan costume.

Over 8 miles of racks...  and the color-coded wall o' jewelry

Rainbow Productions was quite different than Angels, and to be completely honest, I wasn't planning to be very impressed because they make mascots and other costume characters.  I had no clue their productions were so high-profile, for example: Barney and the Olympic Mascots.  The idea of making a mascot wasn't very appealing to me, but in visiting their shop I found I was really quite intrigued.  They have two different shops.  One specializes in making the bodies and requires greater skill in sewing and tailoring.  The other shop focuses on the heads and is more sculptural and crafty.  one interesting fact:  costume character technology continues to improve, making the costumes more comfortable to wear, with one exception: Barney.  The creators of Barney refuse to change how he is constructed, so his head alone weighs about 50 lbs!

 The only picture I was allowed to take.

We also took a tour of the Royal Opera House.  We saw all aspects of the theatre including the scene shop, light grid, and costume shop. 

 Left: the horse is about 30 feet tall, moves and spews fire! Right: We got to run the the rigging machine which was incredibly cool - I had never seen anything like it: everything I've ever seen is pulled by hand.  I'm not in this picture, but I did get to run it.  It was much harder than it seemed.

Their costume shop is also split into two: one for remounts (which consists of a majority of the season because they bring in the most money) and the second shop is for new productions that are built from scratch.  The first shop essentially does alterations and restoration to costumes that could be decades old.  Their goal is to be as true to the original production as possible.

 You know you're a costume geek when you take pictures of the diagrams explaining the proper label placement for different types of costume.  I mean, it's brilliant!  Every shop should have these.

The costume department also largely consists of the dye and painting shop.  They do truly amazing things, but essentially, all the fabric in stock is white.  The costumes will be constructed and it's the job of the painting and dying department to make it the color and texture the designer wants.  It sounds like so much work, but it's a system that works for them.

 Left: Color samples in the Dye/Paint shop; Right: Dye shop humour.

So those are the things that were most directly related to my class.  I wrote a blog post for IU about people watching and my observations of the differences in fashion between the US and London here.  In the next couple days we'll be posting about Ben's arrival in London, followed on Sunday by a post from Ben about Germany.  Then we'll be finished!

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