Costume Designer Catherine Zuber shared some of her insights and experiences with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod.
Ted Sod: Would you tell us about yourself? Where were you born? When did you realize you wanted to design costumes?
Catherine Zuber: I was born in London. My family immigrated to New York when I was nine. The excitement of being in New York was thrilling. All the details reverberated with the exotic. The architecture was different, the cars were different, the way of life and what people ate and wore were all new to me. I think those differences informed how I examine what makes a particular world what it is. In costuming a play or an opera, I love to do the research and get inside a specific time and place. I try to inhabit the lives of the characters that are telling the story.
After I went to art school and majored in photography, I moved to New Haven with a boyfriend who was going to Yale. While I was there, I discovered costume design. I applied to the Yale School of Drama and was accepted. It was an amazing environment to learn the craft of costume design. What I really love about theatre is the collaboration among the designers, the actors, the director, the writers, the musicians, the technical people and the stage managers; the way we all come together to create something, it’s very fulfilling and exciting. Other disciplines can be very solitary in their execution.
TS: Can we talk about your first response to the play The Big Knife?
CZ: The journey of Charlie Castle is a Faustian story. Charlie Castle’s naturalism is appealing to Hollywood and it has made him very successful. In the process of embracing this world, he loses his soul.
TS: Tell us about your research process on this show. Did you study period newspapers or magazines?
CZ: Yes. I have a personal collection of magazines from the time period: Harper’s, Vogue, and some sewing pamphlets from various pattern companies. Also, I often go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), which is a great resource. They have a library with a great collection of publications from all different time periods. They have plates from various department stores with images of what was for sale in a given time period. You need to think about where the characters you are designing would have shopped for their clothes. Sometimes the character is somebody who would have ordered from a Sears catalogue, or they could be a person attends the Paris couture collections for their wardrobe. You have to consider what a character is thinking when it comes to their clothing. What is particularly interesting about The Big Knife is that it is set in Hollywood. Image is, then as now, extremely important. Flamboyance contributes to the choices that are made. Photographic research of post-war California indicates how high-style casual clothing was becoming popular. There were amazing prints and colors. Color in film was becoming more prevalent. There were leisure clothes for men where the shirts are beautifully cut, but it is a casual look.
TS: Which designers influenced style at the time the play takes place?
CZ: Movie designers like Adrian had a huge influence on fashion. Hollywood costume design had a certain aesthetic that translated into what was then available in department stores. I think that, for the most part, fashions were dictated by what was happening in Paris. When you look at the late 1940s, Dior was starting to introduce the new look, which was such a departure visually from what was happening up until that point. Of course, during the war years with fabric shortages, a lot of design choices were influenced by the materials that were available. That’s why women’s dresses were quite short. After the war, there was a real interest in embracing color. Garments used more fabric and it was a very different look.
TS: How will you find these clothes? Will you build them or go to vintage shops?
CZ: I use a costume house called Angels in London, which is a great resource for clothing. I mix things I find there with vintage pieces. All of the ladies’ costumes will be built by Werner Kulovits at the NY costume shop Euroco and by John Cowles. Brian Hemestat will build some of the men’s garments.
TS: Do you sense that there’s one particular challenge in designing this show?
CZ: My challenge is to create a costume story that delineates the characters who have power and the characters who think they have power; there’s real nuance in how the clothes will define the inner lives of the people onstage.
TS: How do you collaborate with the actors?
CZ: I always feel that unless an actor likes what they’re wearing, it’s never going to work. So if I sense in a fitting that they have a sad face, then I’ll say, “Is there anything I can do?” And maybe they’ll say, “Oh you know, I really hate things that are close to my neck.” Or they’ll say, “I’m really self-conscious about my waist and I prefer something that doesn’t have a defined waistline.” And if it’s something that doesn’t compromise the character, I’m more than happy to work with the actor to come up with a solution.
TS: Who or what inspires you as an artist?
CZ: I love going to the Metropolitan Museum. I’m also inspired by novels that are quite descriptive. I’m a big fan of 19th-century French literature, so I love to read Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo and Zola. I find the writing so descriptive of time and place. I’m very influenced by old films; I’m a big fan of film noir and I’m very influenced by the history of fashion. I get a lot of inspiration from looking at photographs, listening to music. The list is really endless.
Read more about Catherine Zuber's career spanning nearly 40 Broadway shows in Playbill's interview.
The Big Knife plays through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets please visit our website.
2012-2013 Season, The Big Knife