IU Bloomington’s new costume technology program is one of half-dozen across nation

After spending a decade working in one of Broadway’s top costume shops, draper Heather Milam definitely has the chops to direct the new costume technology program in IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

The list of shows she helped create clothing for reads like a Tony nomination list: “Spamalot,” “Mamma Mia,” “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In addition, she’s worked on movies, ballets and operas, and she helped create the finale costume for Cher’s 2003 Farwell Tour as well as items for The Rolling Stones’ 1995 Voodoo Lounge Tour.

Heather Milam

Heather Milam

Now, she’s arrived in Bloomington to launch IU’s first-ever MFA costume technology program, one of only a half-dozen such programs nationally that teach students the mechanics of how to create a costume entirely from scratch.

“Basically, costume techs are like engineers; you take a picture or an image or a sketch and create a costume from that fitted to a specific actor,” Milam said. “People can specialize in different areas; some do mostly menswear, or dressmaking, or focus only on period costumes, or are the super-crafty types who create things like the animals you’d see in ‘The Lion King.’ I’m more of a dressmaker/tailor, so our program here at IU will focus more on that aspect.”

Milam’s big break in the costume world came before her senior year at Ithaca College in New York, when she reached out to Barbara Matera’s costume shop and asked if any help was needed for the summer.

“I basically just offered myself as an intern, and they said, “‘Sure,'” she said. “It was such an awesome experience, and I learned so much from the most talented individuals working in the field. Plus, it taught me a lesson. I always tell my students, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask.'”

Milam took a full-time job at Matera’s shop after finishing her degree, where she quickly acclimated to the rarefied world of Broadway stars and stage actors.

Cher's finale costume Milam worked on for the performer's 2003 Farewell Tour.

Cher’s finale costume Milam worked on for the performer’s 2003 Farewell Tour.

And she’s got the stories to prove it: She worked on Cher’s finale outfit for her 2003 Farewell Tour, a tight-fitting white- sequined jumpsuit that made the pages of “People” magazine after it mysteriously replaced the stage diva’s former finale costume.

Another time, Milam stepped back from the office water fountain, only to realize dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov was standing just behind her, patiently waiting his turn.

“I dropped water all over his feet, I was so startled,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, this is my life.'”

Famed designer Theoni Aldredge — the topic of Milam’s senior thesis — was shop owner Matera’s best friend, so she visited often. Other frequent visitors included actresses Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Angela Lansbery, for whom the shop once created a Glenda the Good Witch costume for a charity function.

And while Milam never met The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger when the shop worked on their tour outfits, Milam chuckled mischievously as she said, “I can definitely say, I’ve had my hands in Mick Jagger’s pants. Literally.” (Once, she said, she received the ultimate comeback to her joke: “You and everyone else, darling.”)

Milam, who previously taught at the University of Alabama, is still in the midst of creating the curriculum for IU’s newly launched MFA program. Courses will include costume history; research and collaboration courses with various other areas, including scenic design, lighting and stage managing; flat patterning or draping, where students will learn to create their own patterns; period construction; and computer-aided patterning, which is becoming more the norm in today’s technology-heavy society.

“I’m so excited to be a part of this,” Milam said. “I liken the program to an apprenticeship, or a mentorship, where there’s very close interaction between myself and the students. The department has been fantastic, very welcoming and collaborative, including Linda Pisano, who heads the costume design program here, and the folks in Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, whose students can be closely aligned with ours. I love how everything fits together, and knowing our students will walk away with the hands-on skills that will open doors in the profession.”

The three-year program is open to three graduate fellows, and will begin accepting applicants for the fall 2014 semester. Want to find out more? Contact Milam at hamilam@indiana.edu.

The IU Bloomington Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

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