We sat down earlier this week with Adrienne Dandy, costumer extraordinaire, to talk about the costumes in The Merchant of Venice: the vision, the inspiration, and the challenges.
I'd originally signed on to do one or two pieces for the production, but as we got closer to auditions it was clear that we needed someone to handle the organization and the overall vision. The plan was to have a whole bunch of people helping, and we did get quite a few people doing pieces here and there. I ended up doing more of the costuming than I'd originally intended, but that's how it goes: when you start getting into the work, you realize all of the cool things that you can do. I love working with Jonathan, so I was happy to take this on.
The setting of the play is jazz age, 1930s, and the advantage to that is that we're still relatively close to that time. Unless you go to the Tailor's Handbook you're not going to find a lot of extant patterns from pre-1900 – there's a few, but not a lot. There are still a lot of extant patterns from 1935, though, and I made the decision for the women's dresses to use patterns from the period. For Portia's dress, that meant an actual printed-in-1935 pattern; Nerissa's and Jessica's dresses came from reproductions of patterns from around 1929-1930. The thing about those patterns is that they come in only one or two sizes, unlike modern patterns that are designed in blocks for a range of sizes. For these patterns we only had the one size, and so we had to redraft the patterns: on paper, and then as muslins. Nerissa's dress went through a couple of muslins, since my initial attempt didn't quite work correctly. Jessica's was easier -- the pattern was mostly a perfect fit, but we did spend a lot of time on the self-bias bands, which took a while to make and then to attach.
All three dresses took a lot of prep work: once we started sewing them they went fairly quickly; and that's typical: for every hour I'm spending at a sewing machine I'm usually spending about five hours in my head, planning out what's required and anticipating the possible challenges. That's less true when I'm working with a modern pattern, but when I'm adapting an older pattern – or working from pictures, as we did for Shylock and Tubal's outfits – then there's a lot of mental preparation involved.
One of the main design elements is that the Christian characters are all in shades of black through silver, and the colour along that spectrum denotes their social status. So the servants are all in black, and the Duke's suit is the lightest shade of silver. When Bassanio goes courting, he upgrades his suit to what he thinks is a really natty tux and it's a lighter silver colour than he usually wears.
The non-Christians are dressed more in forest colours, colours out of a Klimt painting. Shylock is in red -- it was originally going to be more of a bronze, but red suits the actor better -- Tubal is in green, Arragon's coppery-coloured coat was interlined with red which makes it very orange. The main thing with all of them was that I didn't want them to be wearing suits. For Shylock and Tubal, I looked for photos from the 1920s and 1930s of traditionally-dressed Jewish men; I came up with this really amazing photo of this old man who looks nearly medieval, and in fact both Shylock's and Tubal's robes are cut on a pattern that I would have used for medieval re-creation work in the SCA.
And with Aragon and Morocco, I looked at what's current on fashion runways in Morocco and in India; their costumes are based on modern fashions, but they take very traditional forms.
With Shylock especially, I wanted something that was very in-your-face about his "otherness": bright red, in a style that might have been worn a thousand years before. That piece came together as a deliberate statement , a physical manifestation of Shylock's refusal to compromise. This is a man who will not bend; he is going to be who he is even though he would probably be more accepted by the Christians of Venice if he was wearing a suit (that is, if he made them more comfortable). But he won’t: he will not compromise. He is a traditional man for whom if it was good enough for his father’s father’s father’s father’s father then it is good enough for him. That element of Jonathan's vision, bringing out the way he has been mocked for years by Antonio, really feeds into that lack of compromise on his part. “If you’re not going to accept me for who I am, then I’m going to be more who I am.” And to me, it has parallels in the modern day. When I was working on Shylock's costume, one of the things that I was thinking about was that our society as a whole is a lot more comfortable with immigrants who wear blue jeans than we are with immigrants who wear an abaya and a hijab. For some reason on a cultural level we tend to classify them as “good” immigrants who want to integrate versus “suspicious” immigrants. So there’s a parallel there – this is set in the jazz age, but we’ve still got the same issues. I wanted to pull that out, and make it very clear that there’s that element of non-bending on both sides: the Venetian Christians would probably find it easier to deal with him if he was in a suit, but is that ok? Should we be stripping the humanity of people away just because they wear traditional clothing? And obviously my answer is no. That’s my little challenge to the audience.