In our first production at Arisia ’15, we were very generously lent our leading ladies’ eveningwear by the costume company Pendragon Costumes. They are gorgeous and beautifully made, and we were really grateful to have them.
But for the recent performance at the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15, we had to find alternatives to use. Given the elaborateness of Victorian ballgowns, and the fairly punishing quick costume changes I wrote into the script, that posed a pretty big challenge for our costume designer, Jennifer Giorno. When I interviewed Jenn about her design process, Mary’s dress proved a perfect example of how she attacked that particular problem.
Phoebe: “So what was your approach to building the new ballgown for Mary?”
Jenn: “Well, we had the same corset piece as before, at least, so I had to try to balance the quick change with what we could add to this to make it look like a unified ballgown. So the question was, what could we add that worked quickly and affordably? And of course it had to be in Mary’s signature blue.
“I basically started off with the bolero idea. I thought the easiest thing would be to try to use the same types of pieces as we used before. Her shoulders needed to be covered, and a bolero was the easiest way to add that, because it wouldn’t have been accurate to have an entirely strapless gown. I found the bolero on eBay, and I liked that it was lace. It would complement the color of the corset. It did what we needed it to do.”
P: “I actually thought that one thing that made for a really nice change this time around was I liked her bare arms. It made her seem younger and fresher.”
J: “It does. Young women would have had shorter sleeves. Always the gloves, but shorter sleeves.”
P: “She had the gloves! It was a very elegant effect.”
J: “Then I needed to match the bolero, to make it look like one unified dress instead of lots of separate pieces. It would have spoiled the effect if we had too many different shades of blue. I knew that we could make a petticoat easily, just a drawstring skirt, to mimic the pieces we used before. I made that out of a dark blue satin with a medium shine. The lace overlay was sort of a last-minute flash.”
P: “It tied it all together.”
J: “I loved the way it came out. I wanted to be able to do some sort of overlay, because they were so popular back then, and it would have been a little too plain for the standards of the time without it. Originally I was going to make it a full overlay, the layer of satin under the layer of lace. But then I liked the way the half-length overlay looked when I tried it all together.”
P: “I did too! It gave it more texture.”
J: “And it gave it another tier! Victorians loved tiers on skirts. And the fact that it was lace tied it to the bolero. It was a slightly different color of lace, but not so visibly, and it created a slight gradation of blues down the whole dress. And the way we ended up draping it in the back, it made a nice curvature with the corset’s bustle. So it looks layered and tiered all the way around, even though it’s a very simple design. It’s just a layer of lace folded over itself and gathered in the back.”
P: “It took an eye to figure out how to make those pieces work together. To figure out how those disparate elements could create the look of one ballgown.”
J: “One thing I’m really good at is being Costume MacGyver. Having a problem and finding a way to fix it using materials at hand.”
P: “Necessity is the mother of invention. Or desperation, as I like to say lately!”
J: “Yes! But I was happy with how Mary’s outfit came out. But throwing that lace overlay in between the corset and the skirt turned out to be the one thing that I didn’t realize was missing from the look.”
P: “It was the last thing it needed to make it look like an ensemble. It came out beautifully.”
J: “Thank you!”
P: “And on top of all that, the quick-change could happen.”
J: “That was the most important part. Making sure it could come on and off quickly, with the things we had at hand. I couldn’t just go out and buy a two hundred dollar dress with a zipper in the back. Because of this, of all the outfits in the show, Mary’s ballgown is probably the least close to period. But the silhouette was there, and that was enough. I tried to keep it in the right spirit— the right bustle shape, the corseted look. It kept it sufficiently evocative, even though I know it wasn’t exact, and was still really pretty.”
More pictures of Mary in her ballgown can be seen in our Gallery section, as beautifully worn by Mary’s actress, Circe Rowan.