Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Complicated Costuming

I'll tell you what...some shows are definitely complicated.

Take "The Beggars' Opera," for instance. This is set in the 18th Century, or as near as makes no matter. We are talking Louis XV, Colonial America, etc. We are also talking about the absolute dregs of poverty-steeped London. Whores, highwaymen, pickpockets and other characters who make Fagin in "Oliver" look like a fine upstanding citizen. These folks are performing an opera, written and directed by one of their number.

So. The basic costuming is mid-century, with the actors in tattered versions of lovely brocade, satin and velvet fashions of the day. These costumes are very expensive to build, and we are hesitant to trash them. Ramona came up with a plan. We use the rich gowns and coats of the era, and cover them with something lightweight and in the same colour, that we can "distress." "Distress," in this case, means spray paint with great gouts of black and brown "filth," and tear into gaping rents. Then, when the show is over, we simply take the rags off the costumes, and...voila! Beauty is reestablished.

Two that I was working on today were vintage red pirate coats, with black and gold front facings and cuffs.

First, I hung several yards of red organza-type fabric out in the tree, and went after it with a can of black spray paint. Of course, the nozzle on the spray can acted up, and I wound up liberally be-spattered with black enamel. Once it dried (took about 45 seconds in today's wind), it had to be torn into strips and sewn onto the red part of the coat. Now, when you tear this sheer fabric, the tangle of thread that ensues is outrageous. The fibers are very fine and very strong. Think cobweb, without the stretch. A lot of them come loose.

Anyway, random strips of this stained fabric have to be sewn all over the coat, including the sleeves, and then ripped and shredded until you literally can't tell where the real coat ends and the distressed part begins.

On top of that, did I mention that the coats are vintage? I'm thinking they might have been made in the late 1960s or early '70s. The black cuffs and facings are made of a fabric called "bonded knit." This stuff was very popular at the time, and features a very thin layer of foam rubber, sandwiched between two layers of knit fabric. The inside layer is extremely flimsy. Over time, the foam deteriorates, and comes out of the lining in the form of sort of sticky crumbs. You might have found this inside an old pair of boots...when you take them off and there's a bunch of black dust all over your leg.

So this stuff is all over the sewing machine, and I'm having to dig out my can of air and chase it away, which also stirs up the miles of cobweb-fine long fibers that are floating around.

Thank goodness I got them done. Tomorrow I spray paint some yellow net, and put it all over a gold velvet gown.

I shall try to get some pictures.


  1. And you just love doing this, I suppose?

    I take my hat off to you. Just a thought...if you tear the cloth, then spray, it might not fray.

  2. Oooh! Who's doing the Beggar's Opera? I teach my kids about that when we study Handel (John Gay wrote it to mock Handel's big, overblown operas.) :)

  3. The only way to have it look authentic is to spray first. Besides, spraying the strips would be even messier. And, you see, the fabric has to fray to get the effect. The frayed threads are just annoying.

    Lisa F, it's Cedar Park High School doing the show. The ALWAYS have a good one. I don't know if it's their musical, or if they are cutting it for contest, but somebody at the school should know.

    They did "Zombie Prom" last year for their musical. We didn't costume it, but I went to see it anyway. In spite of the (you can imagine) plot, the show was very good.