A Pound of Flesh (and Further Adventures at the USITT Annual Conference)

Cal Shakes Costume Director Naomi Arnst blogs from this year’s USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) Annual Conference & Stage Expo in Milwaukee.


Tutus and more from the Milwaukee Ballet's 2009 production of The Nutcracker.

Tutus and more from the Milwaukee Ballet's 2009 production of The Nutcracker.

The first session for costumers was on building tutus, led by the professionals at the Milwaukee Ballet. They had beautiful samples from their Nutcracker, built in 1989 and still ticking. Discussions ensued on creating tutus as well as the costumes of other animal and nonhuman characters that need mass, but still need to be danced in. There was a lot of use of plastic boning and hooping for these structures; other structures were shaped entirely with pleated tulle. The presenters also discussed methods of painting and decorating tutus, bodices, and doublets.

Next was the “Pound of Flesh” session: a discussion on different methods of constructing Fat Padding, as it’s called in our business. This includes any change in body type, including pregnancy pads. Air-conditioning foam and latex foam are the preferred materials. Doll pellets—the same thing as the acrylic beads used for fake flower arrangements—are also common; we use these at Cal Shakes. We cannot use bird seed for costumes worn at our outdoor theater, as it attracts all sorts of wildlife and does not launder well. I learned about a new material for this purpose: bean bag filler, which you can get new or used. The bean bag filler they had on display was Styrofoam-based, lightweight, and really the size of a bean. It seems like that would work really well. Fat Padding is usually applied to an existing t-shirt, undergarment, unitard, or custom-made garment, always taking into consideration how easy the costume is to get in and out of, and whether or not it requires a quick change.

For a designing break, the following session was a hands-on series of round-table discussions about different products used in costume renderings. Each table had different products, and session-goers were able to try their own hands at it. There were tips for design markers, watercolor pencil, grey-scale inks, and more. It was fascinating and it worked well for a big crowd.

Katherine Hepburn, fashion icon

Katherine Hepburn, fashion icon

The next session I attended was called “Costumes of Hollywood Legend & Fashion Icon Katharine Hepburn.” When Hepburn died, all of the clothing and costumes that she owned were given to the History Museum at Kent State University in Ohio. Since then, some of it has been loaned out for exhibition at museums in NYC and Ocala, Florida. We viewed her transformation into a leading lady, and learned about the iconic styles she pioneered until the day she died.

To end the day, it was time to attend the annual Costume Commission meeting where we get together and discuss new projects, old triumphs, and more. We also get to vote on next year’s session lineup, which is quite stressful since there are so many to choose from! I mostly voted for sessions on Costume Management, of course.

With a long day over, it was time to go enjoy some food and drink with my professor of Costume Design and Drama from Santa Clara University, and my former Shakespeare Santa Cruz employee Debbie Webber. Debbie is now the Costume Shop Manager at her Alma Mater, San Jose State University.

That was a very long conference day! Stay tuned for news from Thursday’s events.


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