UNM costume designers fashion their visions for the stage


It takes a lot of people to stage a production. Many, such as costume designers, remain behind the scenes even as their creations draw audience attention center stage, according to three costume designers at the University of New Mexico.

Because they work offstage, the general public makes certain assumptions about what happens in costume shops, according to Emma Harrison, a student at UNM majoring in design and technology for performance with a concentration in costumes.

“I think a common misconception that even I had at the beginning is that it’s like fashion. But the only real similarity to fashion, I think, is the element of building clothes and rendering clothes. But the rest of it is such a completely different world because (for) fashion, you’re designing for individuals outside of this whole story whereas for costume design, it’s way more about the story,” Harrison said.

Stacia Smith-Alexander, a faculty member who supervises the UNM costume shop, said that there are misconceptions about roles within the shop. For example, when she tells people that she’s a costume designer, they assume she sews the costumes.

“I work with the concept. I shopped it with different body types to make everybody look good. So the look is me … I designed it. Like an architect — they don’t build their buildings, right?” Smith-Alexander said.

Harrison, who worked as wardrobe supervisor for the recent dance concert “Monstro/us,” will work as costume designer for the upcoming production of “Wings of Night Sky.” The latter will be her first turn as a costume designer.

“I read the script, and I met with the director and just kind of heard a baseline — what he sees. And part of what he said is he wanted it to be contemporary,” Harrison said. “There (are) some pretty fanciful, fantastical elements in the play, but he said he wanted to keep it contemporary and more simple.”

After reading the script, meeting with the writer or director, and doing research, the designer will then put together inspiration boards for each character, according to Cee Fields-Haley, a UNM theater student and the costume designer for the upcoming student production of “(Type)Writer.”

“I created Pinterest boards for each character and brainstormed before running it by the writer of the play,” Fields-Haley said.

After this, the designer creates sketches for the costumes and conceptualizes the ideas, according to Harrison. Then, it comes time to actually source the costumes. Costumes typically come from three general sources: reusing existing costumes, building custom costumes in the shop or purchasing off the rack from retail and thrift stores, according to Harrison and Smith-Alexander.

Fields-Haley and the playwright Rachel Dodd pulled each character’s specific look using what they already had at the costume shop and Savers, a secondhand clothing store. Like Harrison, “(Type)Writer” marks Fields-Haley’s first turn at costume design.

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“I just want to be an open book, so this just added to my repertoire of experiences I’m grateful to have,” Fields-Haley said.

Harrison said that her ultimate goal is to be a costume designer for theater.

“What appeals to me is simply the craft of making and designing clothing,” Harrison said.

Right now, there are about 20 people majoring in design for performance, with lots of crossover from the film and digital arts program, according to Smith-Alexander.

“I want the audience to know how much thought, research and development goes into costume designing. A costume designer is there to help tell the story of the play or dance piece. They think about color, texture, history, proportion, silhouette, movement, style and fit,” Smith-Alexander said. “Even if the performance is in a modern style, we consider all these things in order to help develop the character/dancer within the production.”

“(Type)Writer” premiered on Friday, March 3 and will run through Saturday, March 11. The upcoming production “Wings of Night Sky,” will run from April 21 to 29.

Gabriel Garcia is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @GLGWrites 

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