By Robin Miner-Swartz
Reprinted from Centralight Fall 2016
When CMU’s theater and interpretation program moved into Moore Hall in 1971 for its first production – “Dracula” – it had to pack up its entire costume collection.
“Everything fit on three rolling racks,” says Ann Dasen, CMU’s resident costume designer.
Today, Dasen leads a team of staff and students who create, mend, organize and catalog more than 50,000 costumes and accessories.
From Renaissance regalia to flower-child bell-bottoms, there’s an outfit for every era.
A computerized database searches the entire collection, allowing quick access to items by time period, color, size, style and more. That’s a vital time-saver when a show requires more than 100 separate costumes.
“If I need a red, high-heel shoe for a 1940s production, I can narrow my search, and it will show me the 10 pairs we have,” Dasen says. “I don’t have to look through all 550-plus pairs of heeled women’s shoes.”
But the costume shop isn’t simply a repository for every article of clothing that’s been onstage in a production. The staff makes and repairs thousands of items.
“If the show is set before 1980, we make almost all of the costumes,” she says.
The program’s showpiece is a royal blue, 18th-century French gown worn by the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in the department’s 2009 production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” If you’ve seen the 1988 Stephen Frears film “Dangerous Liaisons,” it’s the Glenn Close character.
“The dress catches everybody’s eye,” Dasen says. “It pretty much lives on a dress form because we were pulling it out of the racks for every recruiting event and tour.”
Guests love to touch the dress and examine it closely. “They’ll say, ‘I want to learn how to do that!’ Well, we can teach you how to do that here, I tell them.”
The gown was a team effort.
One student – who’d never used a sewing machine – made the bodice. A pair of costume students built the undercarriage. An art minor with welding skills constructed the pannier, which makes the skirt flair on the sides.
University Theatre stages nine shows each year, including its summer productions.
“We did some research, and we do more shows than any other university in Michigan or in the MAC with four tech staff members,” Dasen says. “That means we have to manage our time really well and having a streamlined inventory system really helps. You’re not searching everywhere for an item. I’ve worked in places where you had to dig through piles of clothes on the floor to find costumes.”
The costume shop’s cataloging process keeps everything cleaner, and it helps the items last longer.
In addition to making many of the items needed for productions, Dasen says the Mount Pleasant community has been generous with donations from their estates.
“The community has given us some beautiful articles of clothing and accessories. It’s a nice way for us to acquire vintage things,” Dasen says. “We probably construct 50 to 70 percent of the pieces for each production. With a show like ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’ I can’t just go to the store and buy what I need.”
Dasen says donated clothing can serve many purposes – it may be worn in a production, it may become a pattern for making a replica or it could be used for a costume history course.
“People don’t realize they can donate many things to us,” she says. “We have three file cabinets of just patterns that serve as historical reference. Furniture, appliances, small props – anything that has a ‘historical look’ could be used in a show.” •
Upcoming shows “Shooting Star”:
A two-person romantic comedy set in a snow-bound airport. Performances are Oct. 6-8 and 13-15 in the black-box Theatre-on-the-Side.“A Chorus Line”:
The iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about aspiring Broadway performers. Shows are Nov. 9-13 in Bush Auditorium.Tickets: cmich.edu/ticketcentralDonations:
Have something to contribute to the costume shop? Contact Ann Dasen at firstname.lastname@example.org