A bustling, colorful workspace in the lower level of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film is unbeknownst to many Vassar students. Behind the scenes of every mainstage production, senior drama thesis and student performance, there is a team of dedicated workers who see the costume design process through from start to finish. The upper level of the costume shop is often abuzz with students engrossed in measuring and layering fabrics. According to Lecturer of Costume Design Kenisha Kelly, the costume shop has supported the Drama Department and its productions for many decades. She and costume shop coordinator Pamelia Prior are the backbone of the design department. Kelly does everything from teaching courses in the positioning and pinning of fabric and its design to gathering fabric from the Garment District in Lower Manhattan, while Prior coordinates and oversees all the day-to-day functions of the shop.
Legend has it that the costume shop used to exist in the basement of the Old Avery Calisthenium where the Vogelstein currently stands. Students used old horse stalls in abandoned barns to store costumes. The collection that the costume shop maintains today has over 800 pieces and stretches across Vogelstein’s lower level. The vibrant array of outfits range in style from the early 1800s to modern day outfits to the garb of future worlds. There are six-foot hoops flowing with taffeta and chiffon, adjacent to the racks and rows of costumes, all organized by style and time period. The aisles are labeled with categories like “civilian overcoats,” “ecclesiastical” and “ponchos.” Wedding veils organized by color sit in boxes next to military helmets and leotards. “The stockroom is essentially the most meticulously well-kept thrift store I’ve ever seen,” commented student-worker Jake Foster ’21.
The real gem, however, is deep in the back, hidden beyond the blue flannels and orange floral dresses: the historical collection. The pieces in this collection have been donated and saved over the years, with pieces from the past dating back to the early 1830s. Requiring archival art gloves and moderate temperature and humidity, the pieces are precious and delicate. They are mainly used for design research and class visits.
Kelly, who has been at Vassar for 10 years, studied fashion in her undergrad years and worked for the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet Company for before joining the Vassar faculty. These previous involvements inform Kelly’s work at Vassar. She explained, “From those experiences, I realized how much I really loved teaching which brought me here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Being the costume design professor for the department means more than expounding theory, but also giving students handson costume designing guidance. “I end up mentoring the students through the design process and then advising them as they work through draping and fittings,” Kelly said. Draping is how designers position and pin fabric on a form, or how fabric falls on a form and how to make adjustments, to begin structuring a piece.
An average outfit, from scratch, can take anywhere from four to eight weeks. Her advanced classes take visits to New York City to find swatches for their designs before purchasing the yards of fabric necessary to construct their creations.
The Theater Department meets weekly on Fridays to discuss all things theater. During the meetings, Kelly focuses on observing how the design is developing on each level and works with the design team and director on each piece.
Coordinator Prior is in charge of construction, as well as scheduling costume fittings and figuring out the employees’ work schedules. Simply put, Prior is the go-to person. Prior and Kelly attempt to structure the shop as similarly as possible to a professional costume shop and aid the students in cultivating their visions from start to finish.
Prior began her journey through the theater world when she was a young child, holding aspirations of being an actor. Just like Prior, many people pursue acting careers prior to beginning their careers in theater tech. After dropping her acting aspirations, completing a degree in costumes and bouncing around different regional theaters, Prior joined Vassar’s costume shop nearly four years ago.
The students that populate the shop are often on Work Study, but many are volunteers, or sitting in for a class. Asked about the variety of students who work in the costume shop, Prior said, “It all depends, because honestly in the shop a good chunk of our students aren’t theater majors, and we like it that way. We like to have the diversity and we want anyone that is interested in this area to feel comfortable to come to us and learn.”
Foster described the space’s feeling of inclusivity: “The costume shop is definitely my Vassar home. I find a lot of ‘extracurriculars’ here can be very socially based and oftentimes hierarchical; the costume shop is so refreshingly collaborative and friendly.” The costume shop workers and leaders are enthusiastic and passionate as they cultivate a space that supports and fulfills students in more ways than one.
Speaking to the interwoven community of Vassar’s most fashionable basement, Foster added, “The shop is truly a safe space; we all leave behind our social and school woes and put our energy into making the best clothes possible…I can’t imagine where I’d be at Vassar without it.”
When asked what a typical day looks like, Kelly and Prior looked at each other with wide eyes and laughter. “Oh gosh.”
The duo keep pretty busy, as they are juggling multiple shows in addition to classes all at once. On Fridays, which are often hectic, active, lively and certainly packed, students fly about the room, shimmying around mannequins and each other to reach for colored ribbons and outline stencils. All of this goes on before and below the stages, where the costumes will ultimately be put on full display.