On a weekday early in December, things are a little calmer at the Stephens College costume shop. “The Will Rogers Follies” has opened; “A Dickens Victorian Christmas” has closed. Approaching final exams have left the costume shop nearly empty of students, but there are still thousands of costumes that help tell the history of the school’s theater, dance and music departments.
In the main room of the shop where designs are created, performers are fitted and costumes are crafted, three women sit at their respective stations. Shop foreman and chief designer Patty Doyle remains anchored to her sewing machine. Patricia Davis sits at the end of a long drawing table and faces the door of the costume shop. Gail Shen sits across from her, facing the wall.
“She’s got a better view than I do,” Davis says. “She gets to face all the pretty fabric, and I just get to look at the doorway.”
Shen faces hundreds of fabric pieces arranged on shelves that almost reach the ceiling by color, from lightest to darkest, then by pattern, then by texture. Above the fabric is lace and trim — almost 20 boxes of it — also arranged by color.
“When I first got here seven years ago, the fabric wall was in shambles; nothing was in order,” Shen says. “It took me a while, but I finally got everything organized. When I did it, I discovered that we had a lot more fabric than we thought because no one knew it was hidden behind other stuff on the wall, and I think it’s quite beautiful to look at.”
At her station in the back of the room, Doyle slips gold, red, blue, green and white balls onto a string of golden ribbon.
“We’re going to hang these from the ceiling to add a little color to the place,” she says.
This could be the last Christmas season Doyle, Davis and Shen spend in the basement of Wood Hall. The college is looking at a possible renovation of Wood and Columbia halls, which are across from each other on campus. Both were originally residence halls, and renovation would add additional student housing.
In the past several days, Davis has been making a written inventory of everything in the shop to make a move easier.
“It’s innumerable,” she says of the collection. “I don’t even know where to begin because we have so much. We keep getting more and more because we keep making more and more, and we never throw anything away.”
“The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue” required more than 600 costume pieces, 80 of which were made from scratch in the four weeks the shop had to prepare for the show. With the exception of a few rented pieces, the rest was pulled for the shop’s expansive accumulation of saved costumes.
Third-year student Emma Cullimore nods at Davis’ words.
“It would be nice if each costume had a number on it so we could keep it all in order when we move,” Cullimore says before heading into an adjoining classroom where Doyle teaches costume design to students in the major.
After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Detroit in costume design and a graduate degree from Northwestern University, Doyle came to Stephens in 1968. Since then, Doyle says, she has been on a mission to teach students that designs do not appear out of thin air; they are based in careful and extensive research. “Our theatrical-design students take classes that are specifically script-, character- and research-oriented,” she says. “They learn cutting, textiles and milling from the fashion department and drawing from the art department.”
Doyle says Stephens is particularly unique in that it is one of the few institutions that allow undergraduate students to design full, large-scale productions.
“Next semester I will design for ‘Electra,’ then turn the reins over to two very talented students who will create all of the costumes for ‘Baby’ and ‘You Can’t Take It with You,’” she says.
At a table in the classroom, Cullimore, a theater major with an emphasis in costume design, grabs a few scarves from boxes and begins ironing them. She places a light-blue scarf on the pink tweed jacket, then replaces it with a purple one before settling on a deep blue.
“One of the actresses (in ‘The Will Rogers Follies’) looked really washed out on stage,” she says. “So I’m trying to find a way to bring more color to her face and brighten her up.”
Cullimore says she first stumbled upon the costume shop as a sophomore and has been coming every day since the semester started.
“I really like working in here: It’s an environment I feel really relaxed and comfortable in. The shop is just so unique, and just thinking about the expanse of the stock blows my mind.”
A door in the back of the classroom leads down a long hallway that runs the length of the entire basement, where one room flows into another, which flows into another, which flows into another. Costumes accumulated over many decades in every size, color, genre and material overflow from the rods that stretch from wall to wall, leaving barely enough room for the person who knows the room “like the back of her hand” to maneuver.
Even though Davis has worked in the costume shop for only about two years, she can account for every article of clothing in its expansive stock.
“I can’t remember to get my medicine from the pharmacy, I can’t remember when to take it, I can’t remember where I’m supposed to be when, but I know where everything is in the stock rooms,” she says. “It’s a visual sort of memory that I have of the place — I see a garment and know exactly where it is or where it should be.”
Beneath the rods are crates and boxes labeled with their contents to explain what lies inside: gloves, ruffs, corsets, undergarments, stockings, socks, shoes, tote bags and handkerchiefs. Old faded hatboxes tower over the rods and are labeled to aid searchers: baseball caps, tams, pillbox hats, ski caps and straw hats.
In the ladies’ room, the weight of wedding gowns, poodle skirts, 1920s dresses, tutus, ethnic clothing and petticoats bends the rod. Across the hall, next to the room devoted solely to polyester, is the mens’ room, where tuxedos, double-breasted suits, period suits, overalls, plaid shirts and a cow costume fill a rod.
“We ran out of room in the basement, so we keep all the uniforms — Navy, Marines, military, Army, band — upstairs,” Davis says. “We also keep little kids’ clothes and coats up here; we got more coats than we know what to do with.”