It All Started with a Pin….
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

-- The New York Times

It All Started with a Pin….

In her blog post, Merrily‘s costume designer, Jennifer Jacob, conveys her excitement for dressing a show that spans twenty years of fashion and explains some of the more serendipitous moments of being a costume designer.

When Dev [Bondarin, Merrily’s director] asked me to work with her again on Merrily We Roll Along, my first question was: “Are we doing it period, or do you want the design based on the original production?”  During previews for the original 1981 Broadway production, the audience was confused by who was who as the story ran in reverse, so they famously scrapped all of its period costumes for sweatshirts with the character’s names or descriptions on them. I was thrilled that Dev confirmed the period look [since the span of 1957-1976 is what is described in the current licensed version of the script], and immediately started a research and inspiration board on Pinterest.

Whenever I start a new project as a costume designer, the first thing I do after reading the script is start my Pinterest board for the show.  Some images turn into specific costumes or characters, and others help me convey the mood or style I’m going for to my collaborators. Since this show covers such a broad span of time, and each scene is set in a very specific year, my research also shows me the little changes that happen in fashion that I can use to help show the audience the passage of time – how long were skirts, how wide were lapels, what colors were popular, and so on.  Also, how much does each character care about current fashion?  Gussie is always dressed in the most current and designer styles, whereas Mary is more interested in clothing suiting her tastes and budget and being comfortable, even if it’s unfashionable.  In one scene, at a fancy party, Gussie is in a sexy, fashionable cocktail dress, while Mary is wearing a dress that is 10 years out of style that she says she borrowed from her upstairs neighbor.

I love vintage clothing, and it was so much fun to look for the right pieces for the characters and the actors playing them over the 20 years that the story covers.  I’ve had a wonderful time searching through the city’s thrift and vintage stores looking for our costumes for this show, as well as having friends at New York Theater Workshop and Prospect Theater Company generously allowing us to borrow costumes from their stocks. I’ve gotten to use the great sweaters from the 1950s, cocktail and formal dresses from the 1960s, and Quiana shirts with long collar points from the 1970s.  I was also lucky enough to find some good modern pieces with period details to fill in.

I’ve had very good shopping karma. One example: I found a research photo of a beautiful early 1960s couture evening gown, cream with gold beading, that conveyed exactly the tone and style that I wanted for Gussie, our Broadway star, in the opening of Act II, but it was WAY out of my price range.  Several weeks later, before the show was cast, I was wandering through a thrift store and found a vintage 1960s evening dress, cream with gold beading, in excellent condition, for $15. I bought the dress, hoping it would fit whoever we found, and it looks amazing on our Gussie, LilyAnn Carlson!

Sometimes, however, what you find leads you in a different direction than your original idea. For another scene, set in 1976 in Hollywood, I imagined Gussie in a Pucci print butterfly dress or caftan. Then Annie Jacobs, our Production Manager, brought in some 1970s clothing that her mother was getting rid of, including a psychedelic pink and orange pantsuit that had exactly the right vibe for the scene.  The fabric was similar to what I had envisioned, but the shape was totally different.  As soon as LilyAnn tried it on, I knew we’d found her costume for that scene.

If you’re interested in seeing my research and inspiration, the Pinterest board is here. It’s fun for me to look back now that all of the costumes have been fit on the actors and we’re nearly to dress rehearsals at where I started, and how the ideas developed through time and collaboration.  I hope you have as much fun seeing the show as I had costuming it!

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