Did you admire the lovely Victorian costuming in our production of Mrs. Hawking? It was the work of Jennifer Giorno, our primary designer and the actress who portrayed Grace Monroe, and my very dear friend. She, like me, believes very strongly in the power of costuming to help tell the story and define the characters.
I had the chance to sit down with Jenn and ask her how she approached the fairly challenging task of emulating historical fashions on a tight budget that had to stand up to the rigors and quick changing of theater. She had some fascinating things to say about the process, on a wide variety of costuming issues! So I’ll be breaking it into parts, and today’s section will be on one of my favorites, the menswear!
The menswear of Mrs. Hawking was designed after the very regimented styles worn in Victorian England. There was a separate uniform for respectable gentlemen’s daywear, the morning and frock suits, and eveningwear, the white and black tie tuxedos. It’s a very visually recognizable style, so it would be clear if we did it wrong. Given that we were working mostly with found, borrowed, and thrifted items, it’s amazing just how dapper our gentlemen turned out!
Phoebe: “What do you like about Victorian menswear?”
Jenn: “I love frock coats, I love mourning coats. If men still wore morning coats as as everyday thing, I’d just be so distracted, always! Because I love the cut, even more then regular tails.”
P: “We got that in there, with Nathaniel!”
J: “Yep! It’s so sleek, it’s so good-looking. For me, one of the important things was distinguishing the high-class characters from the low-class ones, or the ones who were pretending to it. So Colchester is a trumped up thug with delusions of grandeur. He wears a bowler hat, which isn’t quite the thing, but it’s close enough to being the thing, so that’s what he goes to. And his coat, it’s a little bit shapeless, but it’s still a nice coat.”
P: “We joked that Brian made it look too good!”
J: “Yeah! But it definitely looked less crisp than all the other men. And in this performance we had him half-untucked. And in he’s not wearing a vest or tie at all, which really speaks to his low-class.
“And with Grainger, it was subtler. He’s technically nobility, but he’s country, so he wears a lovely waistcoat, but his evening suit and shirt aren’t quite as nice and don’t fit quite as well. We even have him in a scene where he’s a little unbuttoned. So with the men, it was trying to be accurate, but getting color choices that spoke to the characters, and making the subtle class distinctions.
“Nathaniel’s looks, his daywear is gray, his eveningwear is black and silver. It speaks to him as a proper, clean-cut character. It says he wants to make a good impression and for people to like him.”
P: “And to our modern eyes, I think it gives off signals that we can interpret as that he’s a good dresser. I’ve always thought Nathaniel cared about fashion, he’s interested in it and keeps up with it.”
J: “Yes, it’s important that Nathaniel, and Brockton as well, come off as a good dresser.”
“Brockton’s also showier about it. It’s part of his persona as the blackmailer. He likes to flaunt his power, and his dress is one of the ways he does it. The daywear in gold and black, and the nightwear in red and black. High class, but also a little sinister.”
“We didn’t go with proper white tie, even though that would have been appropriate. It would have had them basically all looking like penguins! That just would have been too generic. We wanted those flashes of color in there from their vests and cravats. It adds texture and speaks to their personalities.”
I’m with Jenn; I love men in sharp suits and eveningwear. It added so much to the visual impact of our male characters to have them dressed so sharply.