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Costumers scour fabric stores, vintage clothing shops and malls to dress their stage characters

Thursday, March 01, 2001

By Bette McDevitt

While working as a professional shopper for the prestigious Alley Theater in Houston, Lisa Hodde made regular buying trips to Los Angeles and New York to find costumes and material. But it wasn't the glamorous shopping expeditions she was going to miss when she took a job as costume manager for the theater department at Carnegie Mellon.

Russian native Igor Roussanoff sews a costume for the Spanish Dance of "The Nutcracker." Roussanoff, who used to design costumes for the Kiev Ballet in Ukraine, now works as the costume designer for the theater department at California University of Pennsylvania. (Darrell Sapp,Post-Gazette)

"I was in my local DSW Shoe Store, shopping for a production, lamenting that I wouldn't have them in Pittsburgh. And the sales manager told me they were opening one in Pittsburgh. I took that as a sign that I could come to Pittsburgh."

Professional theater companies often make or "build" costumes for their productions. But they also rent, borrow and buy them. It's the job of the shopper to pull together the clothing, shoes, fabric, wigs, underwear -- whatever is needed to fit the budget, setting and time period of the production.

"The shopper has to know materials and have a creative mind. The [designers tell] you what they want, and you have to get in their brain. If you can't find it, you have to change gears and figure out another plan," said Hodde.

She buys as much as she can locally. Two of her favorite stops are Fort Pitt Leather Co., an Uptown supplier of leather sprays, shoelaces and soles, and Elsen Associates on the North Side, a major supplier of wigs and hair. She and her colleagues in other local theater groups are also regulars at fabric stores, vintage clothing shops, department stores and the malls. And they're veterans of the thrift-shop circuit.

"We don't shy away from Army-Navy stores," says Venise St. Pierre, assistant costume designer for the University of Pittsburgh.

St. Pierre had to pull out all the stops for "Silent Spring: Alarums and Excursions," a play about the life of environmentalist Rachel Carson that runs through Sunday at Pitt's Repertory Theatre.

"We needed some vintage clothing and some unrealistic clothing, because some of the characters are flora and fauna," she said.

Russian native Igor Roussanoff, costume designer for the theater department at California University of Pennsylvania, wasn't expected to shop for or make costumes when he worked for the Kiev Ballet in Ukraine.

"You would make a nice design and turn it over to someone else," he said.

But when he came to New York City in the early '80s, he studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology to learn the American way.

"I had a big problem here. No one could make what I wanted, so I do it myself."

He also learned the tricks of shopping in the Big Apple, which is generally regarded as a costume shopper's happiest hunting grounds.

"Of course, there is no place better to shop, and I've been everywhere -- Pakistan, Japan, India, France, Florence, England, Germany and China," he said.

For California University productions, he still makes occasional trips to New York. To keep costs down, he stays with friends and spends no more than $95 for gas and tolls. While shopping for, say, a Giorgio Armani suit for the upcoming play "As Bees in Honey Drown," he'll hit discount designer clothes stores like Century 21 and Daffy's. He spends a day or two looking around before making a purchase. For him, New York is one-stop shopping, and the prices are negotiable.

"I know where everything is, I'm not stressed, and I find quality and price."

While working for the Alabama Ballet, Roussanoff discovered a treasure-trove at a store called Unclaimed Baggage. After a 90-day effort to locate the owners, airlines sell baggage and their contents to this business in Scottsboro, Ala.

"You can get a $1,600 men's jacket for $100, and everything is very clean," said Roussanoff. "When people travel, I don't know about you, but I take my best clothes."

The company offers some items on line at its Web site,

Roussanoff also shops locally, of course. One of his regular stops is the Red, White & Blue Thrift Store on the South Side.

Most costume people do what they can locally. For fabrics, they may go to Jo-Ann, Hancock's or the Fabric Place in Mt. Lebanon, which specializes in costume fabrics.

"We do a lot with local groups, and we donate a lot of fabric," said Tami Ko, who owns the shop with her daughter.

The Pittsburgh Ballet used fabric from the Fabric Place to build the elaborate Cleopatra costume for that recent production.

If Hodde can't find what she needs locally, she uses the telephone.

"I've had to learn very quickly to use my contacts. I call and ask for a swatch, of houndstooth check wool, and then order it. But for contemporary shows, your shopping mall is your best friend."

For "Lost in a Mirror," which runs through Saturday at Carnegie-Mellon's Purnell Center for the Arts, costumers were looking to re-create the silks and brocades of 16th- and 17th-century Spain. Hodde ordered fabrics from California and extended her search to Cleveland and Harrisburg. Costume designer Lindsay Stang painted the fabric to create a rich effect. The budget is always on a costume manager's mind.

"This show and period call for a lot of fabric, so you have to get creative here and consider carefully what you are doing and decide if it's necessary," said Hodde.

Lorraine Venberg, resident costume designer at the City Theatre, does it all -- designing, sewing and shopping. She recalled one particular costuming challenge. She needed a fat Dutch boy costume for a character who had eight costume changes in the early '90s production of "Baltimore Waltz."

"We wanted him to look like the boy on the Dutch Boy Paint, with a red hat, blue vest with tulips, pants with a drop front fly and, yes, wooden shoes."

For the actor, who had 45 seconds to change, Venberg made a form with suspended hula hoop shapes made of nylon rods and fattened up the form with nylon mesh fabric. Then she put the costume over the form with a huge zipper in it so the actor could put the whole contraption on at one time.

But she couldn't find wooden shoes.

"One day, the director came by and said, 'Oh, I have a pair.' They were huge, so we put shoes within the shoes. You never know where you'll find stuff," she said.

To make clothes look worn, Venberg uses a process called distressing and aging.

"You wash them a lot, bleach lightly, dye and overdye, or put another color over top to get a blotchy look.

For last year's "Cripple of Inishmaan," Venberg tore holes in the clothing.

"For shoes and clothing, you may paint on grime and dirt with acrylic paint, using sponges, fingers and brushes."

To distress shoes, Venberg uses sandpaper or a band saw to cut down the outside edge of heels.

"I have taken shoes to the gutter and run them through the mud," she said.

For the lead actress in "Pavilion," who wore only one dress, Venberg bought 13 dresses and returned 11 of them.

Cindy Albert, a first hand in the costume shop at the Public Theater, has a background in dressmaking and does some shopping. She likes to shop at Syms for designer clothes at discount prices. Costume shops like designer clothes for the same reasons consumers like them:

"They hang better, and they are cut better," she said.

Every costumer wants the actors to look good. But it's the audience that really counts.

"We in the costume world pay attention to every detail," Venberg said. "It's not worth distracting the audiences with a look that's wrong."

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer.

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