Dress for Your Worst Enemy: The Making of Bury Me in Paris (Part 4)

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Those words from Coco Chanel, whose legendary career in fashion began in the 1920’s, set up the attitude we at Master Mystery Productions took toward costuming our actors for the upcoming interactive mystery, Bury Me in Paris.  The Roaring Twenties saw fashion, especially for women, undergo a huge revolution.  Hemlines rose, silhouettes slimmed, sparkles abound.  During this era, the little black dress was created and trousers became popular for women.  Costuming our historical shows has become a point of pride for our company, and writer/director Daniel Stallings will give us the background on creating the stunning costumes, accessories, and props for Bury Me in Paris.

DRESS FOR YOUR WORST ENEMY: THE MAKING OF BURY ME IN PARIS (Part 4)

Style was one of the major lasting impressions of the 1920’s.  The rise of modernism and Art Deco, the revolutionary fashion, and the fine and frivolous life were became legendary ideas.  It’s almost hard to remember that, in America, Prohibition was in full force.  But in Paris, France, it was a different world.  In the artistic landscape of Montparnasse–named after Mount Parnassus, home of the Greek muses–the style was very different from the stereotypical “flapper” fashion one sees in costume shops.  The bohemians were working class at times or wildly glamorous and exotic in their dress.

We wanted to visually present a Roaring Twenties that would feel familiar, but also present an era and lifestyle that would read totally new to many guests.

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Francesca Annis as Tuppence Beresford (Partners in Crime, 1983)

More so than any other show of ours, the costumes for Bury Me in Paris were highly character-driven.  Instead of a common group of people we wanted to dress such as Hollywood elite or Victorian aristocracy, we began with each character as an individual unit and dressed them according to the styles of the 1920’s and their own character development.  Everything from socioeconomic status, fashionable behavior, personality, attitudes toward dress, and attitudes toward social custom had to be considered when costuming each character.

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Flora’s mood board

We started by creating mood boards for each character based on what the scene called for.  Our play starts at a glamorous party, so every suspect needed a fabulous and fancy garment that really showcased their style and character.  Costuming is visual storytelling.  An audience needs to be able to read in a glance what kind of character this person is.  Our mood boards not only gave us a skeleton of an idea of what pieces to source, but also a general tone of the individual character.

Other factors were considered when designing the costumes.  Above all, we believe in ease and comfort for actors.  They need to be able to work and move in the costumes. It’s a uniform for them.  So no matter how grand or elaborate we wanted to make these pieces, we always had to consider an actor’s individual needs and the needs of the script to create the most effective costume.  Some of our actors need crutches or canes to move around, so we had to be conscious to give them pieces they could move and work safely in.  Multiple fittings were done to ensure the clothes fit the way we wanted them to.

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Worth its weight in gold…
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A touch of exotica…

Chantal is the infamous Madame Mustache.  She is a muse, a model, and an inspirational beauty for dozens of artists in Paris.  Dressing her was a creative challenge.  Her design brief was rather bare as we didn’t want her to resemble any other 1920’s character type.  She is supposed to be fashion-forward, daring, bold, theatrical, and exotic in her choices.  So there weren’t a lot of built items to pull from; You couldn’t just stick Chantal in a typical flapper dress and call it good.  Her costumes needed to be dramatic.

Taking inspiration from a variety of exotic locales, we created costumes for Chantal with high impact.  Her party dress, for instance, was designed to create a Roaring Twenties Greek muse with a columnar dress, pleating and draping, and an elegant golden headpiece resembling a crown of leaves.  In a drop dead gorgeous fabric of black and sparkling gold, Chantal will be an unmistakable centerpiece.  Her other costumes take elements of cultures from China, Japan, and India to create exotic silhouettes and dramatic flair that paid homage to the 1920’s fascination with the Eastern world.  Accessories such as gold jewels, turbans, brooches, statement rings, and much more will add the glamorous touch.

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Paintbrush at the ready…

For Edgar, the mood shifts from pageantry to pragmatic.  There’s a working class sensibility to his clothes as he represents the starving artists on Montparnasse.  Although he might wear a nice jacket to the party thrown in his honor (most likely a gift given to him by his art patron, the wealthy heiress, Flora Westcott), he dresses like a painter ready to dive onto a canvas when he can no longer stand the social niceties.

In a stormy palette of grays and blacks, Edgar comes across as a typical Twenties gentleman with a utilitarian white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, a gray sweater vest, black trousers, and a gray homburg hat styled after a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh.  The palette visually tells the story about the storm brewing around him and his darker, more turbulent mood throughout the show.  But a little pop of color in his neckwear reveals a more colorful, romantic, and artistic side to this practical, straightforward costume.  A paintbrush in his pocket helps him be ever ready to create a masterpiece when the muse strikes.

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Feathers and fringe. Pearls and sequins.  Oh my!
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How long is short?

If Edgar is austere, Flora wears everything AND the kitchen sink.  We designed her to be the quintessential flapper, a “bright, young thing” with a big bank balance and a love of all things modern, brash, and glamorous.  She is an extremely wealthy character who adores flaunting her money and spreading her fortune far and wide.  We wanted to drape her in glitter and sparkle and shimmer and shine, to take the classic iconography associated with the flapper set and make it our own.

Flora makes her grand entrance in an explosive and energetic palette of red and gold, signifying her vibrant personality.  Much of her costuming consisted of adding embellishment to a basic sequined top.  Fringe, trim, pearls, feathers, braiding, rhinestones…anything and everything we could add.  Her short gold dress hemmed with fringe for added impact when dancing, a scarlet drape of fabric studded with gold rhinestones across the back for even more punch, and a gold and red feathered headband to crown the look will make Flora stand out in the crowd.  All she needs is a glass of champagne.

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While Flora dresses to be noticed, Zoe is a shrinking violet.  We pictured her shielding herself from the strange world she found herself in with her clothing.  She is uncomfortable and awkward in the bohemian landscape, representing a more conventional view of femininity.  She wants to hide.  Soft-spoken and dressed to match, we wanted Zoe to play the fish out of water with some subtle touches that may hint to other parts of her personality.

Soft, delicate, and sheltering were the words we used to describe Zoe’s costuming choices.  Fabrics such as lace and more matte textures make up Zoe’s wardrobe along with simple embellishment that will never rival the glittering display of the others.  A color scheme of black, which recedes from the eye, is accented with shades of purple, burgundy, and wine to hint at whatever secret passions she might hide. A black voluminous coat, a black cloche, simple pearls, and gloves to shield her hands conceal a black and burgundy lace dress.  A beaded handbag she clutches like a lifeline finishes the look.

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Just a pinch of peacock…

Zoe may be a whisper, but “Massimo” is a roar.  Androgynous, flamboyant, and eccentric, “Massimo” was both a fun and challenging character to design.  She began life as a male character, but when a majority of women auditioned, the character was restructured into a more androgynous personality who celebrated both masculinity and femininity in a perfect bohemian blend.  This would provide contrast with the rest of the cast, and helped develop of our visual themes of masculine vs. feminine.  We needed to strike the exact balance between yin and yang, hard and soft, simple and extravagant.  “Massimo” needed to read as compelling and creative, not as a cartoon.

Working with a base of black and white, we experimented with both masculine and feminine cuts, patterns, silhouettes, and textures.  We mixed elements such as a sharp pinstripe with delicate ruffles or a women’s cut shirt with man’s suit jacket.  Playing with these elements to find the right dose of eccentric but believable became an interesting project.  With a pinstriped suit jacket employed as a cape, women’s cut dress shirts and trousers, high polished wingtips, and a festooned fedora, “Massimo” will cut an impressive figure at the party.  Punches of peacock and royal blue–perhaps an homage to a player from a Master Mystery Production past–will add life and zing to “Massimo’s” final look.

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A little black dress…
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Pinning the plumage.

Wilhelmina–“Willie” to her friends–is a classical contrast to “Massimo’s” extravagance.  Clean, classy, glamorous, Wilhelmina was played as straight as possible with a style that could easily transition to any decade.  We gave her some fun and festive flapper fare, but just a simple swapping of accessories could change her look entirely.  Beautiful, striking, and sharp, Wilhelmina is the character with the clearest sight, the sharpest observations, and the driest wit.  We wanted to dress her in a way to showcase her concise, focused vision with a dash of whimsy to hint at the dreamer behind it all.

Coco Chanel’s work and the concept of the little black dress provided the basis for Wilhelmina’s costumes.  Her clothes are all black with will create amazing impact with the actress’ beautiful black hair.  She moves and behaves like an elegant swan, an Odile to Zoe’s Odette.  Her party attire has a touch of sequins to add some sparkle and a flourish of feathers for some added pop, to embody her as the swan she is.  It’s practically our 1920’s version of Swan Lake here.  With a bejeweled headband, matching necklace, and a long cigarette holder perched in fingers clothed in elegant elbow-length gloves, Wilhelmina brings refinement to the bohemian extravagance of Montparnasse.

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It don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got that swing.

If Wilhelmina is sober and serious, Benji is a riot.  Fun, frivolous, carefree, and passionate, Benji Bradley embodies the free spirit of the Roaring Twenties, a jazz musician with music pumping in his veins.  Bouncing along with a rhythm in his step, his energy and enjoyment are infectious.  It’s always a party when Benji is around.  So his costuming had to relay this rhythm and bounce before he ever lifts his saxophone to his lips.

In a sea of a lot of black clothes, Benji needed a pop.  A big splash of blue in his button-up shirt, a pair of wild patterned suspenders, a charming bow tie, and a boater hat will add the right amount of swing to this swingin’ gent.  Contrasting patterns were important to create the wild and upbeat energy we wanted.  A polished saxophone will be the jewel in his crown.  With sweet music and sweet threads, Benji will jump and jive his way into your affections and bring the spirit of the Jazz Age to life.

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1920’s mourning fashions from Vogue.

And that’s barely the tip of the iceberg!  In an era of style, Bury Me in Paris is chock full of costumes and accessories.  The actors will undergo a transformation in the second act and become bohemians in mourning, which means translating their signature styles into shades of black.  Don’t forget our design for a 1920’s angel complete with flapper-style halo.  And that doesn’t count the dozens of jewelry pieces, hats, gloves, shoes, and accessories that add the exuberant icing on top of everything else.  Finish it all with the perfect shingle bob and a statement lip and it’s time for a deadly cocktail.  It’s an era of excess, and we aim to reproduce it as far as we can.

After all, they are dressing for their worst enemies, aren’t they?

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Can’t wait to see the finished products?  Neither can we!  We’ll have to go see Bury Me in Paris to get a glimpse of these outstanding costumes.  Tickets are available here.

There’s a bit of double trouble in our Parisian paradise as not one, but TWO Chantals are part of this cast.  Learn what makes their performances so unique in the final part of our behind-the-scenes series, Fire and Ice–The Two Chantals: The Making of Bury Me in Paris (Part 5).

–Master Mystery Productions

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