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AYT USA: Inside the mind of Tony-winning costume designer Paloma Young

Posted on 17 September 2012 Written by

After watching her effervescent acceptance speech for the Tony Award for Best Costume Design, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Paloma Young. This impression is furthered by picking her brain for more than a flustered minute and a half could allow—Young is, in real life, wonderfully cool, collected and pensive. She clearly knows a lot about her craft and is passionate about creating rich worlds for the characters she works with.

Costume design can be a slightly confounding medium. There’s an immediately obvious aspect to it, of how a costume looks and how that makes the audience feel, but there’s so much more to it than that. Young won her Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher, an unfamiliar prequel to a very familiar story. When designing for a Peter Pan prequel, there are obvious expectations of how characters will look, but Young (and the show’s creative team) almost subverted those expectations. Take Peter Pan’s iconic green tunic, for example; in Peter and the Starcatcher, Peter’s friend Molly, who behaves more like the Peter Pan of legend, wears a green dress, and, as Young explains, “when Molly has to leave, and Peter eventually over time forgets about her and about his adventures with her, I think that that image [of the green dress] is still ingrained in his mind, and then as his clothes start to fall apart, or he has to start put together things that are on the island, he starts to emulate the way that Molly looked when she left.”

But the detail-orientation and creation of backstory extends beyond that. Take the character of Smee, who wears a Wall Street-style trench coat in the show. Young created a whole backstory for how Smee came to own that trench coat, explaining, “I like to think that the pirates invaded the Financial District at one point, he stole that off of a dead banker. I don’t think he’s actually capable of killing anyone yet, he’s tried, but somebody else killed the banker, and he’s on the street, and he took his trench coat.”

This intricacy is even applied to replacement cast members, like in the case of Matthew Saldivar, who replaced Christian Borle as Captain Black Stache over the summer. While she did not have enough time to design an entirely new costume for Saldivar, she made sure that the costume would work with his characterisation of Black Stache. Explaining the difference between the two actors, she says, “Christian [Borle] used to have his vest tight and buttoned really tight with one little button, which is the only button he would button, because everything was too small, and that didn’t really work for Matt [Saldivar], so we re-tailored his vest, and now it’s just open, all the time…and he unbuttons his shirt a lot more.”

The more Young speaks, the more it becomes clear that the way she designs costumes is anything but haphazard; everything she does is incredibly purposeful. This applies to every step of her design process—a process that is remarkably similar to that of an actor. That’s not to say that she shies away from historical research, though. One such example of this is one of the play’s most important pieces, Lord Astor’s coat: “Lord Astor belongs to an order, the order of the Starcatchers, that doesn’t actually exist… I can make up what the Starcatcher uniform is, but it would probably be something similar, like we wanted it to look British…So, instead of putting him in a big red coat, we made a coat that looked like the Caribbean Navy officers coat, and we gave it a red lining, and these red sleeves, which is not particularly British, but they’re innocuous when they are on Lord Astor, but once Black Stache starts wearing them, and flipping up his tails everywhere, and pulling open his coat, suddenly the coat becomes a lot more red than it was before.”

Similarly, she had a lot of fun designing costumes for a recent production of Pride and Prejudice, discovering that some of the most interesting costumes date from a far bygone era. Take ballgowns, for example: “It turns out a lot of the costumes that were made for black and white films are really fabulous colors because they played with the camera in that way, to sort of punch the luminosity of the costume, so there’s all these absolutely surprising colors from the 30s and 40s, in the costume stocks out there, to play with.”

This was a particularly lucky find, since she had spent most of her budget on designing simple white dresses for the Bennett sisters—a feat easier said than done. “I wanted to make them look attractive, and it’s really hard because that period is not flattering for… it is not in line with our contemporary conception of what is a beautiful woman’s body, you look like fat marshmallows…So in order to do that, it was like, how can we make it look period but adjust the waistlines, adjust the necklines, change the seaming, so that it’s more flattering, or more attractive to a contemporary eye, which we could do, but also meant that I wasn’t going to find that somewhere else.” As she points out, that can be disappointing to investors: “That’s where I spent the big money and the labor, but the dresses themselves look very simple and sweet and didn’t seem luscious in the way that, I think that when someone hands you a big check, they’re expecting.” This aligns well with Young’s philosophy on good costume design: “I think that the best costumes, in my mind, are the ones that people don’t see… they make you feel things, without you knowing that you’re feeling them. So most of the time, I like to design invisible costumes.”

There’s not always a big check, though. Luckily, that often leads to some wonderful results, like a sense of community among all those who made the project happen. Take one of the pre-Broadway incarnations of Starcatcher, for instance: “I think that innovation and creativity in finding materials and ways to reuse things is so much more rewarding for everyone who’s involved, like with Peter and the Starcatcher, getting people to donate the materials. Actors donated bottle caps, restaurants downtown, when we did it downtown, donated their corks, and it really fosters a sense of community, which I think live theatre is all about.”

Unsurprisingly, costume design is not the most financially lucrative job. Even for a designer like Young, it’s hard to find a good balance of work that is geographically compatible. She notes, “I just had to turn down a show that I really wanted to do, because it was teching when I was going to be doing fittings for two other shows in different cities. So it’s one thing if I’m like, well, if I could do my fittings in the morning and go to tech in the afternoon, but I can’t do that if my fittings are in Oregon, and my tech is in Texas.” She thinks the challenges are worth it, though, noting, “The tradeoff of having a job that is so fun, that involves so many creative choices and challenges, is you’re going to have to do it a lot if you want to make it work.”

Making it work and becoming a Tony-winning costume designer is not an easy process. It takes a lot of networking and a fair amount of luck to get there, even for a designer as talented as Young. While she had only done theatre on the side during her undergraduate degree, she decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in costume design, a decision she doesn’t regret, explaining, “I would say that I learned a lot in graduate school, my experience was invaluable, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to grad school.” Unfortunately, though, getting an MFA is not an instant ticket to employment, so Young found it important to accept any and all projects that came her way. Her advice to aspiring costume designers? “Just say yes to everything, and be really good at even the smallest jobs. Approach every job like it’s the most important thing, even if it’s just buying socks.”

If you are an American reader of A Younger Theatre and would like to contribute to the AYT USA blog series, please contact blogs[at]ayoungertheatre.com.

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