Hands On! Exploring Costume Creation

Goldblat Dyed Image, Homemade costume pieces.

Example by Leanne Goldblatt 

Published May 11, 2020

Creative problem solving is a strength of nearly everyone who works in and studies the performing arts. With modest resources as the norm, through an abundance of innovation, creative artists and students find ways to get things done under challenging circumstances and on tight schedules. UB’s unavoidable mid-semester transition to distance learning has been a hurdle, but students in Theatre and Dance Costume Shop Manager Donna Massimo’s Costume Construction / TH 107 introductory course have made the most of the opportunities presented.

“Costume development can be mysterious,” according to Massimo. Part of her goal with the 100-level class is a smorgasbord approach to what costuming includes, so that students can find their own specialized areas of interest to pursue further.  “We often have a few students from outside the department. (For example) in chemistry classes there isn’t an opportunity to work as creatively as we do. Costume and costume technology usually ends up speaking to everyone on some level.”

Massimo praised her students for doing an excellent job transitioning to online learning.  Attendance has been high and they have done great research while following the syllabus in real time.

Among other acquired skills, in the early semester students gained proficiency with sewing machines. “It’s no different than walking into the (Center for the Arts) Scene Shop and never having used a table saw,” Massimo said, so students learn from the ground up. They also worked with commercial dyes on fabrics in the Costume Shop.

Each week students were assigned a research topic to become more familiar with general concepts in clothing design from different periods and cultures. One such topic was protective clothing. Students looked into protective gear going back hundreds of years, including armor and garments like bulletproof vests. Massimo also encouraged them to look to the natural world. “It’s all about math and patterns and stealing what already exists in nature. We explore the structure of how things are formed. Students also learn to understand materials so they can recreate items.”

During online Zoom classes the students met to share their research. In one example the class discussed how, when leather is woven between pieces of ancient armor, it’s reminiscent of a lobster tail’s natural protection.

The next home project was to create natural dyes from items in students’ immediate environment, including everything from garbage to crushed berries and plants.  “They were MacGyver-ing it,” Massimo said.

Austin Carbone, class of 2023, was inspired to create natural dyes at his apartment near UB South Campus, compiled into an appealing flip-through portfolio. Carbone is majoring in Technical Theater, with a minor in Studio Arts.

 “A lot of the things that you find in your house have pigment. I put together what I thought would be the best range of color. Then I experimented,” Carbone explained. “I did the cooking process by eye. I would generally leave it (the muslin cloth) in the pot for at least 10 minutes but if you don’t already have enough of the pigment it won’t matter.”

“The turmeric was the most efficient natural product I found because it was powdered and compressed. With grass and something less compact you could barely get a pigment out of it.”

“With more primitive dye solutions there’s almost always a heating process and dehydrating process. It’s how the ancients did it,” Massimo said. “Now we can artificially reproduce these things, but in class we go back to how they started.”

 “For the blueberries and blackberries I mashed them by hand like a puree, then boiled them,” Carbone said. “But something interesting I did outside of the project – I’m also interested in oil painting – I dehydrated them. Then I ground them up into powder to create traditional oil paint.”

When students transitioned to distance learning Massimo asked them to take their sewing kits. The final semester project was to design a protective garment for any purpose of the students’ choice. “They used muslin and found materials to create a mock-up.”

Carbone’s final project was predominantly conceptual and included a social comment. “I made a head garment that allows you to attach a facemask but also includes a cell phone jammer to protect you from radio waves.”

Carbone didn’t intend his device to be a proverbial “tin-foil hat,” but more to allow its wearer periods of peaceful, encapsulated silence. With social distancing, “the only connection right now is digital means, but it’s (cumulative) bombardment on the psyche,” due to the sheer volume of email and online communications now. “The ability to turn on a jammer to protect the headspace is what I’m going for.”

Graduate student Leanne Goldblatt’s project is also relevant to Covid-19 and was inspired by the work of professional artist Michael Rakowitz, who combines design flair with real-world function by creating stylized plastic shelters for homeless individuals in New York City. The shelters, which Rakowitz calls paraSITES, are anything but invasive or gaudy, and can be easily connected to existing outdoor air ventilation systems. His passion for putting creativity into helping less fortunate individuals to live more comfortably using cheap materials spoke to Goldblatt.

“He really inspired me,” Goldblatt said. She too has worked to create a protective piece that could be used by someone without a home. Goldblatt’s design is a combination of both a jacket and a tent. “I scaled it to my son’s size. He’s almost seven. It’s ropes and piping with a pitched center to give it some rigidity. There’s a waterproof hood build right into the tent, made from a urine pad. And the shield pulls over to help the water trickle downward.”

“I stitched in a zipper from the shield to the tent to help keep water out. Then the tent unzips and drops into an interior jacket with alligator clips that hold the flaps down. I used the netting from (the packaging for) clementines to keep the alligator clips in place, and then the jacket zips into place. The jacket can also unzip and become tent flaps. The sleeping pad is made from shipping pads, and the pillow is blow up floats from a swimming pool. There are zipper packets for rice bag warmers too.”

 “I would love to make a design and keep turning them out with found and donated materials and start giving them away,” Goldblatt said. “With (instructor) Donna (Massimo) we talked a lot about what’s going on with Covid, and what’s the correct material to use (for affordability, practicality, and durability).”

Goldblatt also referenced the work of San Francisco artists / activitists Pemex and Neko. “They use old billboards and tyvek materials. They create shelters in place and wit a PVC pipe frame, then allow them to be occupied. There’s a documentary film about them.”

“When the class is over and I want to go bigger and do larger scale things,” Goldblatt said. “And do a street style runway (show) of constructed shelters for my thesis. Clothing and construction is exciting to me and to solve a problem is very satisfying.”

“I bought a sewing machine a decade ago and started making my son’s clothes, plus embroidered fabric for art objects. I’ve always made clothes for myself. I never knew how to do things correctly (until Donna’s class), and she has given me so many new resources and tools to use in the future. It’s the most relaxing class.”