East Bay Costume Designers Talk Shop
Maggie Whitaker, Christine Crook, Ruby Vixen, and Wendy Sparks turn costumes into couture, propelling productions to new heights with their sewing and design skills.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Costumes occupy a strange place in our collective psyche. There is something uncanny about transforming the face and body — and arguably a person’s very essence — with a host of fabric and feathers, felt, or fur. When skillfully designed, the artifice of a costume can achieve a kind of aesthetic alchemy that ferry audiences to times familiar and far-flung, real and imagined. Costumes can instill joy and rapture and rebellion — think of Glinda’s gown in The Wizard of Oz or Madonna’s conical breasts in Like A Virgin — or evoke fear and delight in equal parts. (Beetlejuice’s grubby pinstriped suit leaps to mind alongside Alan Cumming’s bondage bow tie in the TV movie Cabaret.)
Costumes become part and parcel of elevating a production from seeing to feeling, imbuing the characters — on film and stage and in music videos or even video games — with the right colors, movement, and arresting images to echo and elevate the acting.
Bay Area costume designer and artist Maggie Whitaker, a Floridian by birth who wended her way into costume design in high school after never being cast in shows — “I’m an awful actor” — said that clothing is “a language that helps us understand who a person is. The audience has a gut response to how they react to the clothes and what that tells them about each character.”
She’s designing costumes for D’Arcy Drollinger’s film, Shit & Champagne (which began as a stage production); then she has Oscar Wilde’s iconically droll, The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Aurora Theatre Company; and after that, she’ll be designing a world premiere opera, Artemisia, channeling the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi with Left Coast Ensemble at Z Space in San Francisco.
“Costumes can connect the past to the present, the actor to the character, and release the story on a very personal level,” Whitaker said. “Depending on the world, I will go more naturalistic or divergent. In looking at the work I’m doing now, as I bop between gritty/comic 1970s stripper/underworld interpreted through drag and early 20th-century Art Nouveau-meets-dress reform/Wiener Werkstätte-comedy filled with rippingly sharp language, I’m constantly switching gears and trying to keep track of how I’m using print, silhouette, and scale to tell two very different stories.”
It’s all a bit hush-hush, but Whitaker has entered the digital, intangible realm and is designing costumes for Fox Games. “What I dig is that I can develop these looks for a story arc that is a more long-form narrative. We are following characters, seeing how they address challenges in their lives and solve problems. I love the idea that somewhere out, far away from me, is a player enjoying this game and that I’ve helped make it feel more real for that person.”
For Christine Crook, who cut her teeth sewing her own clothes as a kid in Detroit and creating psychedelic “Dead Head” dresses for twirling about on acid, design is all about the proverbial “‘theater magic’ we all seek as an audience.” Crook has designed otherworldly costumes for dance, theater, film, and opera as well as performance art and photography for Shotgun Players, Lincoln Center, West Edge Opera, the Berkeley Dance Project, alongside a host of other kaleidoscopic projects. Depending on the tale unfolding — betrayal, lust, bliss, or defeat — her work deftly toggles between the grotesque and glamorous to sculptural, kitsch, contemporary, and ethereal.
“Costumes aid in that magic sensorial experience of live performance,” she said. “They provide a nonverbal communication about character, time, location, mood, etc. And more abstractly, I love the poetic logic a costume can have. They can create a stunning nonliteral symbolic communication that is left open to the mind of the interpreter.”
Ruby Vixen is a burlesque performer, lead singer of the band Velvetta, and the founder of Dandy & Vixen, a line of clothes and costumes that “seeks to create a more visibly queer world by turning visuals from bygone eras, dandyism, and camp aesthetics into wearable drama.” Reared in Southern California, she credits her costume-crafting mother with instilling a love of sewing into her heart.
“My passion for creating and sewing definitely came from my mom, who made me wonderful costumes growing up,” she said. “As an only child, I gravitated towards crafts and writing as forms of self-expression and as a way to keep myself company. I essentially always felt the need to create things as a way of interpreting my feelings about the world around me.”
While Vixen has designed for a whole host of projects and productions, her current confections for drag and burlesque echo the ethos that has buoyed her along her entire life. “I have always been someone who is ‘too much,’” Vixen explained. “Taller than the other kids in school, more developed, bigger, louder, just impossibly more. When I was a kid, it was just impossible to find things that fit — imagine Jessica Rabbit trying to shop in the juniors department at Sears — so I had to learn to create what I wanted. As an adult, I found a way to channel my sense of being ‘too much’ through performance and creating costumes for those performances.”
Vixen fashions everything from smoking jackets and lingerie to dressing gowns, coats, and bodysuits. Sumptuous fabrics and sinewy lines slink and slide along in leopard chiffon, burgundy velvet, and of course, oodles of lace, fringe, and tassels abound.
“There are many pieces to the drag puzzle,” she exuded. “Everything becomes a matter of proportion. Drag queens are often — but not always! — male-bodied persons trying to look like someone who is not only perhaps a different gender but entirely physically different than the person they are. Things must be larger — busts, butts, hips — to make things like waists and arms look more ‘in proportion’ to the overall esthetic.”
Vixen said she thrills at reframing the “problems” of bodies as “design challenges” and delights in celebrating their differences. “Our society is so fond of creating this false idea that we must measure to. When you’re making clothing, it becomes quickly apparent that outside of fictional model land, there is actually no standard.”
Wendy Sparks is a veteran designer who’s been costuming in the Bay Area since 1991. She is UC Berkeley’s costume director and delights in the historical hunt embedded in creating theatrical clothes. “Costume design allows you to be a fashion designer across all time and space,” Sparks said. “It requires a lot of research into history, music, art, and politics so that you can really understand why the period you’re working in and the socio-economic climate you are designing for relates to all of your characters. I really geek out on this kind of immersion.”
She said as the daughter of two creative “makers,” she started sewing at the age of 5 before designing her own clothes as a teenager and devouring period movies with her father like Gone With The Wind and Paper Moon, which boasted incredible period-specific pieces. Sparks’ first “real costume” was a ballet tunic for her brother who became a professional dancer about a year later.
While Sparks said she was never encouraged to formally study design — “I didn’t even know it was an option to study in college.” — she has gone on to live a life of theater following a stint as a fashion designer and retail buyer for Planet Five Productions. Since joining UC Berkeley in 1997, she has worked as a cutter/draper, curator, craftsperson, and a makeup designer for more than 100 shows — and costumed 25 — at the university.
She said that in both her teaching and design, communication and collaboration are paramount. “I find it’s best for us creative types to start with basic structure and then embellish,” she explained of her methods. “So, bake the cake first, then frost it. The cake is knowing your script, the vision of the director, and all of the action your actors are going to take. Then you can apply your astounding vision to the whole thing and create something that is tasty and justified. I try and inspire students to really listen and to engage with the material as well as the design team. For me, bouncing ideas around leads me to more ideas and more textured concepts.”