Computers have had a transformative effect on the work of lighting, sound, and (increasingly) set designers; costume designers, however, have by and large resisted the lure of the digital world. One costume designer who is ahead of the curve is Carrie Robbins; she not only creates her sketches in the computer, she makes use of it to explore new ideas in costume design and manufacture.
Consider her designs for a revival of the musical Rags at Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, NJ, which ran in November and December 1999. A quick flop on Broadway in 1987, Rags has been substantially revised twice, leading to a number of regional theatre productions. The libretto, by Joseph Stein, traces the fortunes of several Jewish immigrants in New York, circa 1910, and it examines many aspects of their lives: the tenements, the sweatshops, the pushcart vendors, the Yiddish theatre, socialist labor movement, and crooked municipal politics.
To research the project, Robbins visited the Ellis Island Museum in New York. "They have an incredible collection of photographs," she says. "People were photographed on entry in this country. The pictures are very moving and compelling. You see large families, where all the children have been dressed in handmade dresses all cut from one bolt of cloth." She also studied many period documents, such as maps of New York Harbor, photos of the buildings on Ellis Island, and passenger manifests from European ships-lists detailing the names of the immigrants, how much money each person had, along with his or her profession, and the name of his or her sponsor in America. "They even list each person's height," the designer adds. "It's fascinating to see how much shorter everyone was then-many men were 5'4"-5'6"."
Robbins then took this material and scanned it into her computer ("You can enlarge the images easily, which makes it easier to see seaming details," she says.). She experimented with the images using Photoshop, cropping them, collaging them, and trying different color treatments. "Then," she says, "I began to think." In some ways, this production of Rags was more conceptual than its Broadway predecessor; James Morgan's scenic design placed the action inside an abstraction of the Great Room, the main receiving room at Ellis Island-he even made use of mannequins, dressed in period clothes, placed on the set's second level, serving as unseeing witnesses to the action. Why not, Robbins wondered, take a more abstract approach to the costumes?
Thus Robbins began to experiment with costumes that were collages of her research images. She designed a blouse made of a passenger manifest, and even did a simulated lighting effect sketch, to see what the costume might look like under theatrical illumination. "I knew it would become just a pattern, or texture, onstage," she says. Still, she was intrigued. Director Jeffrey B. Moss was skeptical; Robbins herself notes, "This kind of imagistic idea is more popular in opera and dance than in theatre." However, the idea still interested her.
As a next step, Robbins took some of the immigrants' photos, some of which she had given a sepia color treatment, and began assembling costume patterns using the images. The designs blend a number of elements-the manifests and photos-in different configurations, creating a richly metaphorical effect. From one point of view, the characters are literally wearing their own histories; from another, the images are a ghostly reminder of the millions of other immigrants who came to this country.
Years ago, Robbins notes, a designer might have achieved this effect by having them hand-painted-although it would be cripplingly expensive and difficult to render these clothes as Robbins designed them. "You would need painters with extremely strong painting skills," she says. Instead, she created composite images in her computer for each panel of fabric required for the pattern of in each costume, then had the patterns printed out on fabric, using an ink printer. Set designers have been using this process for years-Heidi Ettinger did it for The Secret Garden, as did Adrianne Lobel for last season's revival of On the Town-but the technique is new to costume design.
Of course, Robbins notes, "It's very expensive to print on cloth-on average, about $12 a square foot. Also, you're limited in your choice of fabrics. You need at least 85% polyester, because of the ink." (There are other problems as well: the patterns take up an enormous amount of memory in the computer.) So to minimize her costs, she did test runs of the patterns, printing them on rice paper using color xerox at her local copy store. "We also used the rice paper full-scale dress to make adjustments in the color and placement of images on the costumes," she adds. "That way, I could put it on a mannequin and stand away from it, to see which images would 'read' at a distance and which ones I should pump up a bit."
When she was satisfied with the paper samples, Robbins assembled the patterns on four disks and began printing out samples on polyester, then assembled a sample men's and women's costume. (The designer used an printer outside of New York, but King Graphics is a well-known New York-area printer that has worked frequently with scenic designers.) In choosing samples, she says, "The printers allow you to choose a 4" band; you should look for a band that has many colors in it to create your test strip. This lets you check the actual colors of the printed piece and request color corrections before the final printing. "In my case," she says, "I was willing to pay for a full printing of all panels, which the shop then cut out and assembled, because it was just too complete a design-it was different on every panel-for me to judge from a test strip." (She used the sample costumes for the show's swing performers). Adjustments were necessary, she adds-"Beige came out ochre, and black came out purple"-but were relatively simple to make.
While Robbins was ironing out the bugs in her creative process, she was also dealing with Moss' desire for a more realistic approach to the costumes. In her original plan, these imagistic costumes would only be worn by the immigrant characters, as opposed to the "American" characters, the ward heelers, sweatshop operators, and fashionable ladies who also populated the stage. Then she began to see these clothes as a second layer, to be worn under jackets or aprons; the outer pieces would very naturalistic in design. The costumes would be barely visible until the play's climactic moment when Rebecca, the heroine, rejects her assimilated politician husband, and joins a line of striking workers. Then, the actors would discard their clothes' outer layers to fully reveal the collage costumes. At that point, she says, the actors "would be seen as all immigrants, past and future. The story would become the larger story of immigration."
Moss suggested another version of the ending, in which the actors would move upstage, during the finale, where they would put on preset long coats done in the imagistic style, Ultimately, however, he decided that such a transition would be too jarring for the audience and the costumes were cut. Robbins complied, providing meticulously detailed period clothing. Many pieces were real period clothes, carefully taken apart and then re-assembled on newly constructed bases. In a brief sequence set at Yiddish theatre performance of Hamlet, she went one step further, "making them in part from some fabulous vintage cloth-literally portieres, seat covers, and hangings from the turn of the century-not unlike what might have been done in the Yiddish theatre."
Robbins is frank about her disappointment. Still, she adds, "I remain excited about the potential that this computer technology has to offer us. Maybe we were ahead of our time." Anyway, she adds, "I loved getting the chance to do cutting-edge computer stuff, right next to resuscitating the great old bits of fabric ephemera from the 1910s-in the same show!" The costumes didn't vanish; several of them were put on display in the theatre's lobby. Furthermore, Robbins hopes to spread the gospel in her other life as costume design teacher at NYU. Interestingly, she says that most of her students have little computer experience, at least as designers. On her agenda is a grant proposal for a computer with enough memory to allow her students to experiment with digital costume design. After listening to the designer, one feels sure that there are many creative breakthroughs to come using this new technology.