Costuming period play balance between historical accuracy, modern aesthetic

The night before the initial dress rehearsal for a play involving the first period costumes she’d ever designed, Barbara Harvey Abbott had a nightmare.

“I dreamed I got a note from the director, telling me we needed to switch out all the costumes,” she said, chuckling a little at the then-horrifying memory. “It’s quite funny now, but luckily it didn’t really happen.”

The second-year MFA student — who’s studying costume design in IU’s Department of Theatre and Drama, part of the College of Arts and Sciences — designed the costumes for IU Theatre’s production of “The School for Scandal,” currently playing in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre.

Popular in the late 18th century, the play is a commentary on personal reputation and society judgment. Despite its period setting, such a theme resonates strongly in a world awash with quicksilver opinions that can be shared instantly via social media.

That same dichotomy is on display in Abbott’s work, since dressing actors in period costume is a delicate dance between historical accuracy and a modern aesthetic.

“You have to think about how to change the historical period to fit the modern eye,” she said. “For example, men today don’t wear bows on their pants. If you saw a man wearing bows, you’d likely find him eccentric or very over the top. But in that time period, it was considered very fashionable. So it’s about how to use those period elements to talk to an audience today. We’re not always strictly accurate historically, but taking into account how the costumes will benefit the characters and overall story.”

Nightmares aside, however, the extra items called for in such a piece can be a bit overwhelming.

“This is my first big period show,” Abbott said. “So it’s my first time using huge understructures for the ladies’ skirts, and corsets for everyone. It’s also my first time dealing with wigs.”

(Wigs? Turns out there’s a company in Los Angeles that rents reasonably priced wigs to production companies. Who knew?)

There’s fun involved too, including dressing the “fops,” a pejorative term from 17th century England for a man overly concerned with his dress. In this case, the term can be applied to one of the production’s leading female roles, Mrs. Candour.

“She basically looks like a giant cupcake,” Abbott said of the character. “She’s wearing huge panniers — that’s a type of undergarment that extends the width of the skirt at the sides while leaving it relatively flat in the front and back — and her dress features very flashy colors with ribbons and bows, plus she’s wearing a huge white powdered wig. She looks so sugary and flowery, and it looks like whipped cream on top because of that wig.”

Want to check out Mrs. Candour’s outfit for yourself? She appears in the above trailer at the 0:52 mark, and the show runs through the weekend.

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