The Alchemy of Costume Design

Holly Levison pins the muslin prototype to actresses Francesca Harper.

Holly Levison creates one "seriously iconic dress"

“I’m an alchemist,” Holly Levison says of costume designing. “There’s a tangible, magical moment when the actors put on the costumes and stop being themselves.” The actors enter the dressing room concerned with their own affairs, but as they step into the costume, they step into the character. Their demeanor shifts. Their speech adjusts. They are transformed.

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Costume alchemy requires research and collaboration to work its magic. When Levison creates costumes for a play, she carefully reads the script, making notes about the characters and the scenes. Then, she meets with the director and set designer to ensure that they will produce a harmonious visual world. Productions with elaborate choreography require extra attention because the dancers must be able to move freely. After collaborating with the other designers, Levison continues to research the characters she will dress. If they are historical figures, she analyzes photos and films of the character.

Compared to some larger productions Levison has assisted, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” appears to be a simpler project. The play is set in a seedy Philadelphia bar, has four characters, and no costume changes. But there’s the dress – “one seriously iconic dress,” Levison says.

Holiday is known for her love of fitted bodices, full skirts, elegant beadwork, and delicate headpieces of gardenias.  Her consistent style expresses the forcefulness of her personality. Levison admires her self-awareness, saying, “You have to be a strong woman to pick your style and stick with it.”

After she completed her research, Levison sketched several designs for the costume and discussed her vision with Jarvis Green, the artistic director of JAG Productions. They selected the dress’s final design, a stunning white dress with intricate beading. Levison sewed a prototype of the costume from inexpensive muslin, which she fitted to the actress to ensure its comfort and precise fit. She used those measurements to create the final dress.

This year, Levison has worked with “1776,” “Hair,” and now “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” -- all plays exploring themes of revolution, statement, and power. Billie Holiday’s life embodies all three themes, Levison says. Holiday revolted against the racial injustice of her time by singing about lynching before the Civil Rights Movement. She was a black woman decrying injustice in nightclubs that refused to serve customers of color. Her bold clothing choices also expressed her powerful personality, certainly made a statement, and probably boosted her confidence.

“I can’t imagine walking the path she walked, but I would speculate that her clothing gave her strength,” Levison says. “Putting on her clothing was a moment of alchemy."

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" is showing May 31-June 3 at the Grange Theatre in Pomfret, VT and June 7-10 at Main Street Landing in Burlington. 

The final costume design as sketched by Levison's daughter, Hannah Levison.


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