How costumes unfold

A behind-the-scenes look at how Carolina students work with professionals to create costumes for PlayMakers Repertory Company shows.

Eliza Doolittle strolls in. Actually, it’s actress Mia Pinero and she’s ready for a costume fitting for “My Fair Lady,” produced by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Behind the scenes, students in Carolina’s Master of Fine Arts in costume production program are ready for her. The students have worked for weeks to bring costume renderings by New York-based designer Andrea Hood from paper to stage for the show, which runs through April 29.

Fittings are only one part of what MFA students do for each of PlayMakers’ nine annual shows. Every student touches the production in some way. Their work includes developing patterns, cutting fabric, mocking up, sewing the costume together, fitting it to an actor and more.

More than 110 hours

To help bring the beloved Doolittle character to life for “My Fair Lady,” third-year MFA student Max Epps patterned and made a lilac ascot dress, while second-year student Michelle Bentley made a ball gown. Combined, the students spent more than 110 hours creating the two costumes.

During the fitting, Costume Director Judy Adamson, who has led the costume production program since 1993, watches the students interact with Hood. Epps brings out the ascot dress for Pinero to try on. The students eagerly await Pinero’s reaction.

She steps from behind the curtain with lilac silk charmeuse flowing from shoulders to feet, and smiles. “It’s beautiful! It makes me feel like a princess!”

Hood checks every detail and moves with Epps around Pinero, noting adjustments that must be made.  Next, Bentley unveils the purple ball gown and they go through a similar process.

In preparation for the fittings, Erin Torkelson, a second-year student serving as assistant to the costume designer, collected measurement sheets for each actor and consulted with Hood about pulled clothing from stock to consider. She communicated yardage needs for the made-to-order garments to the designer and handled rentals from other sources.

Other drapers for My Fair Lady include the other four MFA students. Volunteers and undergraduate students also work in the costume shop, as dressers and back stage.

80 costumes and 19 actors

“Drapers are responsible for more than one look whether pulled, purchased or made to order. All of that work is just a fraction of their workload for this show,” said Jennifer Guadagno, assistant costume director. With a 19-member cast, two musicians and two stagehands in approximately 80 costumes, each draper was responsible for one or two made-to-order garments and six-to-ten additional looks.

Hood recognizes the talent of the students who go through the MFA program. “They’re ready to go to work and I’m ready for them to move to New York to work with me,” she said.

The academic demands for Carolina MFA students start with a year of beginning draping and flat pattern fundamentals. There are classes in costume history, crafts, construction and design for the technician. Show assignments and shop duties are also part of the class load. The second year includes more advanced pattern making and construction, as well as a focus on costumes from time periods such as the Renaissance and the Victorian era.

“They have intense academic responsibilities,” Adamson said. “They have to keep all the balls in the air at the same time like any professional has to do.”

The combination of academic and professional-caliber work pays off for graduates. They create costumes for Broadway and film, regional theaters and musicians, work in fashion, teach at colleges and much more.

“They will have the skills and the attitude it takes to work professionally, whether it’s in an academic situation or in any of the entertainment industries,” Adamson said. “Mostly, I hope they’re happy and that they get rewarding work.”

Learn more about the costume production program and its costume archives.