From peanut butter on toast made by Peter Falk in his dressing room to a trick bosom for actress Tovah Feldshuh, Tony Award-nominated costume designer Carrie Robbins has enjoyed a celebrated career spanning four decades…so far. As the winner of the 2012 TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award for costume design, Robbins is also the subject of a USITT monograph, The Designs Of Carrie Robbins, by Annie and Barry Cleveland.
"I try to talk to the actors before even starting to draw the costumes,” Robbins explains, in terms of helping them define their characters via clothes. “If they’re not yet cast, and I must move ahead with the design, I have the text to give me guidelines, and the director, of course, and the choreographer to talk about movement, if it’s a musical. And today, there’s the power and depth of the Internet; I can get to museums across the world very quickly.”
Then as soon as the actor is available, the two talk. “The first fitting, which may be in muslin if we can make a custom garment, or may be some shopped pieces if it is to be a bought garment, is a great opportunity for the actor and me to share ideas,” the designer notes. “This phase is early enough that I can shift the muslin pattern around or take the buying in a different direction. The good actor will almost always have, in my experience, a better sense of who he or she is than the director, because the actor truly inhabits the character. He or she knows all sorts of private information that even the director doesn’t access.”
In terms of fabric, Robbins admits to being spoiled by the variety in New York, where she lives and frequently works, citing B&J, Mood, Elegant, and “tons of holes-in-the-walls in the garment district. All of us might use the upholstery/drapery fabrics in the D&D Building sometimes and some stand-out fabric stores in San Francisco and LA that are easy to work with long-distance. And I’ve searched for special needs on the Internet.”
Robbins recently finished a Nutcracker that is set in 1830, about which she notes, “I am really fond of what we call the Biedermeier Period, especially 1830-40—quirky, very romantic, tiny waists on the ladies and on the men’s frocks, and huge exuberant sleeves, usually of silks and satins, and just delicious.”
Robbins moves easily from period costumes to contemporary musicals, such as Grease, but finds that the research methodology is the same, regardless of what she is specifically seeking. “But what we designers usually need is ‘visual research,’ so we will look for artists or photographers who work in the period and document it, recording it for us to see,” she explains. “Direct research, seeing vintage clothes in private collections or in the collections of the great museums, is always great. Some movies will provide good visual research, but some are ‘coated’ with a Hollywood patina and therefore not useful. Of course, books, which are descriptive of period life, are great, and all costume designers have libraries of costume texts, historical references on costumes, etc. There’s no lack of information for us, visual and otherwise. Our bigger problem is time!”
As for Feldshuh’s bosom, the occasion was the premiere of Yentl, and the actress was called upon to bare her breasts to prove she was actually a woman parading in the traditional Jewish black frock coat and hat. “Afraid that Orthodox Jews in the audience might be offended, Tovah turned upstage to reveal herself, but the director wanted her to face the audience,” Robbins recalls. “Finally, I got a call from Cheryl Crawford, one of the producers, who was writing Tovah’s contract, and she wanted to include a legalese phrase that said the costume designer could cover the breast area yet convince the audience the actress wasn’t wearing anything.”
Robbins ultimately made a cast of Feldshuh’s chest. “The plaster gets hot as it dries, and I was scared we would burn her,” the designer reminisces. “She meditated throughout the entire experience. Then we popped the cast off of her body, and I created slim, bosom-shaped overlays that were opaque and then painted to look real. Everyone was fooled.”
Her advice to young designers? “You have to be tenacious with the instinct of a pit bull and never give up,” says Robbins. “Theatre is a collaborative art, so you need to be able to intelligently defend your ideas yet compromise because it is such a collaborative process. You also need a sense of humor. You can’t get through without one, and you have to enjoy working closely with people, especially the actors, even when they behave badly,” she stresses. “And most of all, you have to love the theatre, or what else would you be doing there?”
The TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards were founded in 1993 to pay tribute to the art of costume design. Since then, the annual award presentation has become an occasion for the costume design community to come together to honor its own. The 2012 Awards were held May 4 at the Hudson Theatre in New York City. For additional information, visit www.tdf.org.