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Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Canvas to Costume

julie taymor catherine zuber

What a treat it was to listen to some of the top costume designers discuss their craft last night. Mad Men's Janie Bryant, Lion King's Julie Taymor and Catherine Zuber, 5 time Tony Award winner spoke at a lecture hosted by my alum from Parsons, Tim Gunn, better known as the mentor from Project Runway.

The discussion opened with Tim Gunn and the designers discussing the role the Metropolitan Museum of Art played in their lives and inspiration.

Julie Taymor recalled how she explored the African art galleries in the museum in doing her research for The Lion King.  She loved the big tribal masks and seeing the bead work on the native costumes influenced her decision to use authentic bead techniques and real beads (as opposed to plastic costume beads) in the costumes for the Broadway Musical.

Both Catherine Zuber, Tim and Julie stressed the importance of seeing art and your inspiration in person.  Don't fall victim to "Google-itis" warned Ms. Taymor.  An internet image is no match for seeing the scale and being face to face with the "visual history of mankind".

Janie Bryant has influenced how many people dress today with her work in dressed the period drama Mad Men.  She started as an art history major but found she was obsessed with fabrics.  Her favorite  painting is Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon, (mainly for the fabulous ermine cape).  She veered into fashion design then ended up as one of the most influential costume designers today.  She describes her process for period dressing as starting with the script, the time period, dialogue first.  She then researches shopping catalogs of the time period because they reflect what people actually purchased over fashion editorials.  She loved the Metropolitan Museum's costume exhibitions as you can see significant clothing up close.

Tim Gunn also loves using period advertising when he researches fashion history for his books.  He also expressed his appreciation for shapewear a la Mad Men for making people look great.  His quote "Rocky foundation, rocky house" and "Comfort is overrated" made the audience laugh.

An interesting point that both Catherine Zuber and Julie Taymor both made was that limitations in designs equal freedom.  That could mean anything from restrictions in budget to restrictions in movement.  Julie sited an example about a traditional kimono sleeve only allowing the arms to raise to a certain level, or corsets to posture.  This in turn added to the movement and behavior to a character for the performer.  Catherine noted that the bigger the budget, the more people you had to answer to.
While the opening of The Lion King was a grandiose, big budget number, one of the most effective images from the show was a very inexpensive effect of a mouse shaped shadow puppet with a light on the wall...

So how has costume evolved into the fashion of today?  Tim Gunn noted that my alma mater Parsons School of Design first opened the costume design department in 1906.  At the time, the word "fashion" was not a noun, but a verb, "to fashion".  People adorned themselves in a costume for the role they played in life.  Now fashion design is what people wear, an seemingly, costume is what people see as art or theatre.

What do you think?  How does art inspire YOU in what you wear?

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