PROBLEM:

When Judith Bowden set out to design costumes for the Shaw Festival's Gypsy, she wanted “to give a real sense of America in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. “Vaudeville is dying and finds its last vestiges in burlesque. There's shoddiness, an aged feel to costumes that have been worn a lot,” she explains. “The gimmicks are cheesy but clever.”

Bowden says the characters find the glitz and raciness joyful nonetheless, and she set out to ensure that modern audiences would share that joy. But she knew gimmicks appropriate to the time would be disappointing today. How could she stay true to the essence of the period and surprise spectators?

SOLUTION

After referencing books on new burlesque, a resurgence that pays homage to early century burlesque without re-enacting it, Bowden decided Electra would wear a costume that embedded modern technology in period attire.

LEDs did the trick. Bowden went to the theatre's construction electrician, Ian Phillips, with a set of ideas about how Electra, a stripper, would light, and he gave her more cue options than she had imagined. They turned Patricia Vanstone as Electra into a walking lighting board, with 17 cues programmed into a Microchip PIC that she sets off using one switch in her glove.

The button is visible to spectators who look closely, a crudeness Bowden wanted, but they can't anticipate all that pushing it will do. Electra's legs, bra, and a bumper star in front of her crotch light in an unpredictable sequence. Five LEDs per breast enable lights to chase and twirl. Bowden also wanted the dancers to do some of their strip, so she put removable stars on Electra's breasts. Margie Berggren made a star headpiece out of drywall edging with holes in it, and hot glued star-shaped acrylic jewels to it; these had LEDs embedded and lit up, too. Twenty-nine circuits in three colors — red, blue and mostly amber — light Electra. “Even though it's an LED,” Phillips says, “the light comes up well as warm and incandescent.”

Thermal plastic that reacts with heat, permitting costume builders to mold it, allowed the costume shop to create cartoonish breast stars that stand away from her body. “The plastic almost has a fabric base in it. I've heard of it used for casts, but you use heat, not water. You can also use it for masks and props,” says chief cutter Ramona Crawford. However, like fabric it may be, but the plastic is too hard for a needle to penetrate.

To nestle LEDs into acrylic jewels, Phillips relied on a relatively new type of rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery, 20 AA types. Phillips credits bigclive.com with providing insight into how to epoxy LEDs into acrylic jewels. “Once you epoxy, it bonds the lens of the LED to the acrylic so light transmission is good,” he says.

The long drapes of the skirt required long runs of wire and LEDs. They lined each strip of her skirt with plastic boning, encased and braided to look pretty. Before previews were over, the braid had to be pulled up several times so that broken soldering below could be repaired. “There's no such thing as flexible soldering,” Phillips laments. Whenever the LEDs caught on something or kicked into something, connections came undone and had to be hot glued again. “I factored in a couple of more circuits than I needed (three per drape),” says Phillips, explaining that because of this, spectators would probably not notice if one part stopped working.

Of course, burlesque costumes don't provide an abundance of material, and hiding a 4"×6"×2" box and a bunch of wires wasn't easy. “Judith's goal was to have the person as naked as possible,” says Crawford. “Judith described the way it was all going to be wired, how we would hide the wires, where they would congregate, and how they would hook up to major power source. But I'm working with fabric trim, and braid, and bras, and when Ian introduced the actual mechanical work, this complicated things.” Crawford adds that the costume required “very little fabric and many, many stitches.” (The skirt is thin drapes of jewels, with lights embedded in them.)

Bowden hid the box under a period bustle piece and orange bow. Phillips knew the ideal place for the equipment, which weighs a pound and a half, is the lower back where there is the least movement. “Because she has to appear to have a bear midriff, we covered the box with fabric, and Ian put snaps on it, so we could snap it right onto a piece of the garment. The snaps were hooked onto the box, which had to be suspended from a backpack,” says Crawford. The backpack also houses AA batteries, driver PCB, and connectors. Vanstone dances mostly face front, so the average viewer wouldn't notice it. A neck piece helps hide wires.

Hanging the costume also proved problematic. Phillips asked the scene shop to weld a stand appropriate to hang the skirt and back pack, and a hat rack for the hat. That made it easier to plug everything in pre show so an operator could check all circuits before hand.

The Shaw Festival went all out for a costume that involved the electrician, the prop shop (which cut drywall edging for the hat), and the scene shop, as well as the costume shop. “It's great when many departments work together on something,” says Bowden.

If you've met a design or technical challenge, share your solution by writing to davi@comcast.net.