Vreeland and Taffeta

I love costume designers.

One should love costume designers if one chooses to be a dresser. There are two in particular that I have worked with repeatedly. I refer to them as “The Thelma and Louise of Costumes”. In the bitter end, both would drive over a cliff to get what they want for their show.

Full Gallop is a one-woman play about fashion editor Diana Vreeland. The character wears one costume: black slacks, black sweater, black shoes, a necklace and a bracelet. Sounds simple, yes? Thelma was turned loose on this show with a reasonable budget for shopping and materials.

It felt like every black sweater in America ended up in my office (I’m not kidding). This one costume was the perfect example of not knowing what’s right until you see it. And Thelma needed to see everything.

There were dozens and dozens of black turtlenecks.

Dozens and dozens of black mock turtlenecks.

A crew neck here, a boat neck there.

Black V-necks, cardigans, and black cowl necks by the dozens.

Three quarter length sleeves or long sleeves?

Wool. Cotton. Cashmere. Rayon. Silk. Linen. Polyester …and every blend between.

Shoulder pads or no shoulder pads?

Buttons or a zipper up the back, you ask?

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

There were black sweaters from thrift stores. There were black sweaters worthy of Rodeo Drive. I saw a two-dollar sweater hanging on a rack next to a $600 sweater. All sweaters were considered equal and could be perfect for the play despite its origin.

“Keep the tags on, people!” she would say. Most of the lot would be going back to the store in the next two weeks.

I wore a black sweater to work right before dress rehearsal, and Thelma was eyeballing it. Luckily I wasn’t the same size as the actress.

Don’t forget the slacks and shoes.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Keep in-mind, all the blacks have to match under the lights.

“That black is too blue. It needs to be a red-black,” she told the craftsperson. More than one black sweater was dyed black. Each one still wasn’t right.

Finding the right pieces for a show was Thelma’s specialty.

“You can’t just go to JC Penney’s and buy the whole Diana Vreeland outfit!” she proclaimed in a production meeting.

Of all the shows I did with Thelma, Full Gallop took the cake. She spent twice her budget on a show with one actor wearing only costume. That’s not saying the she did anything wrong. It’s just that everything had to be right! But right is always open to interpretation. Especially when you have a very particular director.

Now Louise had a whole different approach to costume design. She was typically hired to do shows more historically detailed. She had a favorite fabric that she would use, no matter what, in all of her shows. That fabric was changeable taffeta.

Changeable taffeta, also known as shot silk, is a fabric which is made up of yarns of two or more colors producing an iridescent appearance. It is sort of the cousin to satin or a shiny silk.

The first show I dressed for Louise was Turn of the Screw: the 1898 gothic ghost story by Henry James. She had the governess’ dress made of dark green changeable taffeta with a white, cotton Peter Pan collar. Why not?

Next up: Oscar Wilde was on trial wearing a changeable taffeta vest designed by Louise in the play Gross Indecency.

Louise broke things up a bit by having a red and green plaid changeable taffeta dress on Nancy in the musical Oliver. Oh, and Bill Sykes had a distressed changeable taffeta vest, too. She and the show’s design were nominated for an award. She didn’t win.

Lily Ann Green shows up to 1950’s Harlem in Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs From the Table of Joy with one tiny, beat-up suitcase. Halfway through the play, she’s decked out in a GIANT dark blue changeable taffeta gown and crinoline designed by Louise. The getup would have never fit in the character’s tiny suitcase …or any suitcase. The dress looked like it cost more that the Crump family’s rent.

I did Crumbs From the Table of Joy again at a different theatre a year later and Lily Ann Green had a mere dress for her evening out on the town.

For years, I watched Louise go nuts over changeable taffeta.

Olivia’s dress in Twelfth Night.

The dream ballet in Carousel.

Salome in Salome.

Even when I went to other theatres as a patron and saw her work, I knew Louise would find somewhere to use her favorite fabric.

I used to fantasize that I would get to dress Louise’s costumed version of A Few Good Men or Waiting for Godot. I wanted to see Lenny wear changeable taffeta overalls in Of Mice and Men.

When I heard Louise was designing the costumes for A Raisin in the Sun, I thought, “Ah, ha! She can’t possibly put changeable taffeta in this show!”

But she did. The costume shop built Beneath a Younger a dark blue changeable taffeta dress.

I guarantee you that if Louise had designed Full Gallop instead of Thelma, she would have gotten the sweater at the local mall, and had custom slacks of black changeable taffeta made for fashion icon Diana Vreeland.

Changeable taffeta. Changeable taffeta. Changeable taffeta.

I get it. My major was costume design. When I used to design, I had my own little quirks and fixations that I’m sure used to drive everyone crazy. But I eventually learned that being a theatrical costume designer was more than glamorously flinging fabric around and snapping my fingers at people. It’s a thankless job. The hours are long and rarely does a theatrical designer concentrate on just one show at a time to pay the bills.

Louise can drape the world in changeable taffeta if she wants. Thelma can sweater shop herself into a frenzy. Love the costume designer, not all their choices.

RIP Louise. She died of cancer a few years ago. I’m sure she arrived at the Pearly Gates wearing changeable taffeta wings.

Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.

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