Patrons who attend a dance or theater production at Knox have probably encountered the handiwork of the college’s costume shop.
Tucked away in the basement of the Ford Center for Fine Arts, the costume shop is part workshop, part laboratory and part classroom for students interested in the field of costume design. These students, led by Lecturer in Theatre Margo Shively, work to build and alter the garments worn by actors and dancers in many of the productions that go up each term.
For some, costuming is a hobby, but for others, costuming is an occupational obsession and will be the focus of their future professional lives.
Through her work in the shop, senior Franzi Mayer is building skills that will allow her to pursue a future career in costume design for theater. Coming to Knox with a background in fashion, she immediately sought out opportunities to work in the shop but was persuaded to change her focus from fashion design to costume design.
“I approached Margo on the second day of orientation,” she said. “I told her I was interested in fashion and wanted to work in the shop. She then said to me, ‘I bet you want to go into costume design.’”
Since freshman year, Mayer has worked on and designed for a number of shows both at Knox and in the Galesburg community — including a summer production of “Pirates of Penzance” for the Prairie Players Civic Theatre. This production was particularly tricky, according to Mayer, because she had severely limited resources to work with.
“With a limited budget, you have to take stock, look at everything you have and decide if pieces can be styled to look differently, to fit in at all with the design you have in mind,” she said.
Shively, who leads the shop, also stressed the point that creating costumes is not always about exact replication but, rather, getting the essence of the garment correct — especially when creating pieces for period shows.
“We don’t try to replicate a vintage piece, due to complexity and time,” Shively said. “There are line qualities specific to different time periods that we can use to evoke a certain piece. We’re not historically accurately recreating these things.”
Along with teaching students how to create garments, Shively also wants her students to appreciate the craft aspects of costume design — including mask making or using dye processes to alter garments.
For last year’s mainstage production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the shop created masks for the play’s characters. Junior Alyssa Kennamer, who built the mask for the character Feste, counts this as her favorite project completed in the shop.
“Making the masks for ‘Twelfth Night’ was different from being in the shop with needles and thread,” she said. “It was very constructive. I prefer to make things from scratch rather than alter something that’s already built. It’s easier to become invested in something that’s your own design.”
While students in the shop are exposed to a variety of techniques for designing and building costumes, some shows require little in the way of original work — especially those that are set in a contemporary setting. According to junior Hannah Compton, most of the pieces for this term’s production of “At Night’s End” by Motti Lerner were either pulled from storage or purchased.
“We first go through our stock to see what we already have, then we go to Goodwill or to Salvation Army to save money,” Compton said. “If we can’t find anything at those places, we look elsewhere, but try to stay in town to purchase locally.”
Despite occasionally limited resources, students working in the costume shop get experience that would be hard to match at a larger institution. Shively focuses on helping students bring conceptual designs to fruition. This focus gives students wishing to pursue careers in costume design an advantage.
“We are able to compete in these top grad school programs because we have the opportunity to expose students to so many different areas and give them a chance to explore all areas of their artistry,” Shively said. “At the undergrad level, it’s unusual to be working in the costume shop. But I’m an advocate that all my students have the opportunity to see their work realized onstage.”