Inspired by ART at the Henry

Guest Blog Post by Rachel Apatoff

Apatoff is completing her MFA in costume design through the UW’s School of Drama.

UW Drama's 2012 production of Jane Austen's Emma. Photo by Frank Rosenstein.

Diving into a moment in history is one of the most exciting things about being a costume designer. This year when the UW’s School of Drama released their season line-up, I spotted a stage version of Jane Austen’s Emma and knew it had to be the production for my costume design thesis.

Because I’ve always been a voracious researcher, Deborah Trout, Senior Lecturer in Costume Design and my thesis adviser, challenged me to take my love of research to the next level by spending time behind the scenes in museums, photographing and drawing real clothing from the period (1810-1815). Because Emma is set long before photographs, portraits and fashion plates count as primary research, but nothing can rival seeing the objects in person. Taking the time to draw each one enables a profound understanding of construction, which, when translated into the design, gives a truer and less “costume-y” appearance to the costumes on stage.

I was lucky enough do so at four museums across the country: The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York; Smithsonian National Musuem of American History Museum, Washington D.C.; Chicago History Museum; and the UW’s own Henry Art Gallery.

After searching the Henry’s online collections database, I was aided by Rachael Faust, the Henry’s Assistant Curator of Collections and Academic Programs. She looked at what I’d been able to find on my own, and suggested additional objects. I made an appointment to view the objects in the museum’s Study Center and had the whole room to myself; full of gorgeous objects to be inspected.

Clothes that are 200 years old are obviously quite fragile, if they exist at all, and no other museum except the Henry had accessories, so I was excited to see what shoes and bonnets look like in person.

Nuremberg, Germany. Woman’s bonnet. 1804-1814. Straw; Silk brocade ribbon. Plain weave; Braided; Supplementary weft patterning. Henry Art Gallery, 77.8-265.

In 1815, shoes still were identical– no difference between the shoe for the right or left foot! I can’t do that to the actors, of course, but seeing the shape of those shoes and bonnets in person informed my choices as I was trying to translate my research to the stage. Understanding such small details, never could have been gleaned from fashion plates or paintings.

Woman’s wedding Escarpine. 1800-1850. Leather. Plain weave; Satin weave; Fabricated (leather, cloth). Henry Art Gallery, transfer from Columbia Teacher's College, 66.25-239, m1 and m2.

Because every dress was handmade, each is totally unique, down to its decoration. My favorite custom trim was on a sheer white dress in the Henry’s collection. I meticulously drew and photographed the trim and brought my photos to the costume shop’s draper (dressmaker). Together we puzzled out how such trim might be made and applied that technique to a dress that’s on stage in the very first scene! Go see the show, and let me know if you spot it.

Nuremberg, Germany. Detail of woman’s day dress. 1813-1822. Cotton. Leno weave; Twisted. Henry Art Gallery, intradepartmental transfer, 77.8-10.

The UW Drama’s production of Emma will run until February 26 at the Jones Playhouse.

Tickets are available online through the Meany Hall website

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