It was the perfect segue from Paris Fashion Week to my Brisbane life when I was invited by Queensland Theatre for a sneak peek ‘Behind the Seams’ to view the costumes for their first play of the season ‘Death of a Salesman’.
This is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century and was written by acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller. This iconic play is set in the 1940’s, a wonderful era for fashion. On a sunny Brisbane morning, which contrasted greatly with the freezing and even snowy Paris conditions, I headed to the stunning and newly refurbished Bille Brown Theatre to take a look at costumes for the show, explore the renovated wardrobe department and to learn more about the process of costume design.
Anthony Spinaze (Associate Designer/Costume Designer) guided our excited group, through the works in progress and showed us some amazing 1940’s inspired fashion, much of which I would wear today.
It’s no surprise that Anthony’s background is as an artist, for the first thing I spied were some beautiful costume sketches pinned around the room. The costume design process begins with ideas and Anthony showed us the book they call the bible. This book showcases fashion from the era including clothing , shoes, belts, makeup and hairstyles and this is the design team’s starting point. The sketches come from these ideas and are refined as the process goes along.
Anthony said, “ This is why I changed from being an artist. I love the collaborative process. Being an artist means you’re always working alone. Here we work as a team. I love every part of the process, although it is daunting the first time you are presenting your ideas. Once that’s done we all work together to bring that vision to life.”
Indeed, on the day I’m here Michelle is sewing some delicate lacy underwear and Leigh is putting the final touches on a costume. One of the designers had previously and painstakingly unpicked a vest from Darcy Clothing in London and knitted it back into place, so that it was just the right length for the actor. From Darcy the theatre is supplied with men’s clothing from the 16th century through to the 1950’s. We all marvelled at the workmanship and beautiful cut of a pair of men’s pleat front trousers from the ‘40’s.The attention to detail is phenomenal.
For this play, the timeline changes from Depression era clothing, which is quite dark, through to the 1940’s where Dior’s New Look came into being, so the fashions and colours become more elaborate as the times change in the play. There are beautiful vintage pieces which have been sourced especially for the play, great replicas of original garments shipped in from England, as well as a team of costume designers busy behind their sewing machines reproducing looks from the era. We spied one of the men’s suits from ‘ Ladies In Black’ finding a new life in this play.
A colourful belted dress in a Liberty print was the first item that caught my eye. Liberty London is one of my very favourite stores. The colours in the frock were so vibrant and sunny and the shape so classic, that I would’ve happily worn it to the welcome back lunch I was anticipating with my friends at Jo Jo’s. The Liberty print was soon forgotten and I gasped as I spied the elaborate dresses with cinched in waists and full skirts that mirrored Dior’s New Look. These eye catching numbers were sleekly draped over some mannequins.They were absolutely exquisite! Anthony showed us how the garments were modified for ease of costume change. This was something I’d never thought about before.
There were men’s dapper suits from the era and the young men’s shirts, trousers and knickerbockers. Each style reflected the character’s unique traits.
A hush descended as our group was treated to a peek inside the dressing room. How many of our favourite actors had graced this room? Here were more detailed sketches, an array of cool ties from the era, furs, jackets and of course, shoes. The shoes are one of the most important parts of the costume and have to be sourced early so that the actors have time to rehearse with them on. They are resoled so that they are not slippery and don’t squeak as an actor walks across the stage.
Next was the wig department which has a separate hairdressing room all to itself. I spied many looks from previous plays , like the flowing curly locks that Rhys Muldoon had worn as Sir Isaac Newton in ‘Nearer The Gods’. For ‘Death of a Salesman’ many of the wigs are made from human hair and as the character’s age, subtle hints of grey are added. I was amazed at the thought that was put into the minute changes. There was a blonde wig being styled, but it was the cherry red wig that I was itching to try on. Very glamorous! The group grew quiet as we realised the sparkly shoes placed atop the shelves in this room had been worn by Queensland Theatre favourite, Carol Burns.
Last stop was the newly refurbished wardrobe department sporting rows and rows of vintage fashion and ghosts of costumes past.The neatly arranged hangers boasted a treasure trove of vintage clothing. There were coats, military costumes, furs of every kind, dresses from every era and as I looked behind me, a wall of very cool belts. A girl could get lost in here for days. Costume Supervisor Nathalie Ryner explained that some of the costumes had been ruined in the flood and with the new digs, “We’ve had a clear out and organised things. We have to do this fairly regularly but there are some real treasures in here. Some are from previous plays and a lot of our stock is donated. We just received a mink coat.”
As we said our goodbyes there was a lot for me to think about. The way Fashion informs an era and a moment In time. The importance of costumes in defining a character in a play. The way our clothes reflect personality, position and age. How clothes can really be works of art.
I can’t wait for Opening Night of ‘Death of a Salesman‘. I feel like I know some of the characters already through their looks, but a costume still needs a skilled actor to really bring it to life. ‘Death of a Salesman’ will be the first play of the 2019 season for Queensland Theatre. To see some simply beautiful 1940’s looks and one of the most lauded plays of our time head to The Playhouse, QPAC. ‘Death of A Salesman’ runs from the 9th February.