From Liz Martin the costume designer

Hi this is Liz Martin, the costume designer for Butterfield 8 . John asked me to write about the process of creating the costumes for Othello.

When John came to me with his concept for Othello it took me a bit to find my muse. One of the things that I love about working with John is that he can be very specific in regards to the look of the show and yet still give me the ability to design and bring in my own ideas. An we never know where it will lead us!
I have learned to ask lots of questions of John before I even read the play:  Do you have a specific period in mind? How do you see the lines for the show? Were we looking at a female warrior society? Are we going drag? (No, Hard/structured/columnar, not really, no).
Other considerations include: Who are the actors and how many parts are they playing? What kind of budget is available? (little or non)  How will the costumes fill the stage? Are there any references in the text to a specific article of clothing or color? (strawberries? they had strawberries in Egypt?) 
Cathryn (my shop manager) and I discussed that we didn’t have the bodies, time or budget to build structured, involved costumes. Easy, simple Those were the watchwords.
If I am not familiar with a show I prefer to listen to it rather than see a production that might influence my design. The plan is that between the text of the play and the ideas that John and I have discussed I will form a clear picture of what to create. Yeah, no such luck.
Next step: see what other productions have done in the past. Is there anything that works for me, inspires me –   or not.
I found several productions that were done modern dress. I found them visually boring. There is only so much you can do with suits and uniforms! 
Our stage space is small and we tend to work with minimal sets. Therefore, the costumes are often the moving scenery. As I had already done Twelfth Night with the women in suits I didn’t feel that a modern dress staging would give the look that John was looking for.
I was thumbing through the Folkwear Patterns catalog when the section on Asian clothing caught my eye. Hmm . . . clean lines, structured, a-sexual. This could be it! Japanese – ish.
I was intrigued by the hakama’s – very full legged pleated pants. They were easy to build – but it meant 8 of them. The kataginu would give the women a strong, simple line: a wider back and shoulders and add the military feel. (4 of these)  I already had a pattern for a jinbaori, or vest, that could be used for the non military characters. These could be made reversible, which meant making only one for an actor playing 2 roles.(Only 5 )  For the Duke we could build a kimono (1)  and for the other members of the senate we did a modified ruana that kept the Japanese feel but would make it easy to change for the next scene. (2) I could pull the white shirts from stock. We found a skirt that could be used for Bianca and a robe; A tunic for Desdemona and killer fabric for Emilia’s over robe.
John and I discussed the color palette for the show. The conversation went like this: “John, in a perfect world, what would you like for the color palette?” “Natural colors: greens, rust, blues, & browns”.  “Great – I will do my best but I make no promises!”
I find I really am hesitant to commit to a palette before I have looked what stock I might be able to use or to see what fabric I can find. When you are on a limited budget you learn to keep your options open.
As I perused the fabric I found myself reaching for natural colors. Nothing too strong. Iago shouldn’t be in black – Othello needs to be slightly different and . . . he needs a turban. Let’s use this fabric for the Duke and also to designate those affiliated with him. Cassio is a bit of a ladies man – Rodrigo is spoiled,  wealthy  – Desdemona a virgin. Slowly the show found it’s look.
About the second week of rehearsal, John stopped by for a production chat. (We never really have meetings – we just chat).  I showed him the palette that I had chosen, which amazingly, was right where he had hoped it would be. He shared with me how my choice of the Japanese style was influencing the fight choreography and some of the staging. Wow! 
This to me is what theater is all about: collaboration, building on each other’s ideas and suggestions. Each member of the production team doing a little give and take, knowing when to make a stand and when to let someone else win. 
In the end we built 24 pieces of clothing for the show, pulled 6 items from stock ( 4 of which required changes) and bought 9 pieces that required minor modifications (the white shirts didn’t work). 
I hope you enjoy the show and the world that we have created. 

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