Getting dressed is a form of expression. What someone chooses to wear is a kind of silent movie acting. Without words, someone’s clothes can inform impressions about their socioeconomic status, their current mood and situation, even their personality. Costuming is a performance art we take very seriously. Dressing characters is so important to give audiences a story of who they are without the help of a script. Ode to Agatha presented unique challenges in terms of re-imagining, recycling, and restructuring our costuming. Learn how we took a familiar decade, a familiar locale, and even familiar pieces and reworked them into magic for our latest show.
DRESS CODE: THE MAKING OF ODE TO AGATHA (Part 4)
Ode to Agatha is not our first show set in the 1940’s. That was Goodbye Hollywood. Ode to Agatha is not our first set in England. That was The Last Garden Party. So we already had certain style references in our back pockets. Postwar Britain was an interesting time. Rationing was still in place until the mid-1950’s. So 1940’s dressing was utilitarian in a way, streamlined silhouettes, more modesty than say the 1920’s, and also more masculine lines, shapes, and finishes. We wanted to embrace period day wear, but wanted to add a little fantasy that theatrical performance provides.
Our last 1940’s drama was the Goodbye Hollywood saga in 2015. Tonally, that show and Ode to Agatha are completely different. Goodbye Hollywood was an intense family drama, heartbreaking and dramatic. Ode to Agatha is lighter, friendlier, funnier. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. So the costuming had to adapt. Hollywood oozed glamour with furs and feathers and crystals. Ode to Agatha features more working class people and focuses on summer day wear instead of evening wear.
Another mission we focused on was finding basics and reusing past costume pieces and seeing what we could do to restyle them for this show. We love our custom-designed costumes, but there’s not a lot of longevity in them. They can only fit so many shows. A flapper dress is gorgeous, but unless every show is a speakeasy mystery, it doesn’t have a lot of mileage. Styling more simple pieces that, with a little theatre magic, can belong in any area, is much more effective in the long run.
Let’s start with Simone Davenport, who, as the grand diva of Shayle Court, would insist on going first anyway. Simone is a drama queen. She doesn’t command attention; She demands it. If you don’t give her your full attention, she will make you give it. She’s extremely wealthy and will use her money as a validation for respect. She doesn’t earn it so much as buy it. She dresses to be noticed, dresses to be theatrical, dresses to make her presence known, felt, and unforgettable.
So in creating her costume, we wanted to make bold statements. Her first look is supposed to be a kind of travel outfit as she had just come by train. We decided to go with a graphic color scheme of black and white in bold blocks. Starting with a tone-on-tone patterned white blouse once used in The Last Garden Party by Lady Elizabeth (the actresses are the same person), we paired it with a strong-shouldered black jacket and a black knee-length skirt with a flourish at the bottom. She will wear one black glove and one white glove and be crowned with an elaborate black and white hat. Jewelry in both colors and black and white shoes finish this graphic, striking look. It seems to represent Simone’s attitude so well. It’s her way or nothing.
Simone is the only character with a second costume, and we wanted to make an even bolder statement. Simone is theatrical, a poetess with melodramatic, eccentric flair. We wanted to give her a stage costume for her dramatic poetry reading at the fete. So we designed a caftan inspired by the pennant bunting we’ll have at the event–bunting inspired by the Union Jack–the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. A midnight blue velvet crisscrossed with a shimmering diamond pattern in gold glitter provides a beautiful base for the caftan. Red accents will add the Britannica pop to this ensemble. It’s Simone’s over-the-top, somewhat bizarre way to show patriotism to her country at her fete. While still being the center of attention, of course.
Tobias Davenport lives a life of idle luxury. No rush, no fuss, no undue effort. He’s a spoiled cat living the pampered life of ease and wealth. An unashamed gold-digger who lives off his wife’s money. We wanted to dress him like a sporting British gentleman, ready for a day on the yacht or on the “links” (golf course), but who probably doesn’t get much farther than the local pub. He’d go to his club and play snooker while downing enough scotch to float the British Navy. Something of a British playboy.
We kept the color scene in shades of cream, just like a cat would enjoy. We reused the Italian cream check dress pants from The Last Garden Party and paired it with a crisp white shirt and a more relaxed cream sweater vest with navy blue trimming the neckline. Perfect for a day on the links. Except this Britisher is found with an ornate glass in his hand filigreed in gold with a map of the world and filled with scotch. A red and blue striped necktie and a tie clip and cuff links bearing the image of the British royal heraldry symbol of the lion showcase Tobias’ devotion to the UK.
Caroline Shaw is an English rose. She’s quintessentially a British lady with good breeding, excellent manners, and a rigid sense of hospitality. She is an excellent hostess who likes the world to be organized to her exacting standards. When she dresses for the summer fete she’s organizing–It may be Simone’s show, but Caroline does all the work–she dresses sensibly for the occasion and the season. She’s a no-nonsense woman, which means she is frequently exasperated by Simone’s off-the-cuff antics.
For Caroline’s costume, we kept it to light, summery colors that emphasized her English rose nature. Our first inspiration was a hat carried by Mia Mallowan in The Last Garden Party. It was never worn, so now it was our chance to use it. Whites and pinks were the central color scheme. We also reused Phoebe’s blouse from The Last Garden Party, but altered it, changing the green accents to pink and re-imagining the blouse closure from a loose bow to a more formal, buttoned up brooch accented with pearls. Over this altered blouse, we’re placing a bright pink vest with a geometric lattice pattern. Paired with a clean white knee-length shirt with just a hint of a pattern, Caroline will read as the summer-fresh, perfectly presented hostess that she is. It’s all finished with a large, sparkling ring in the shape of a fully bloomed flower.
Miriam is the unexpected American guest. We’ve had similar characters in the past, but this one we’ve styled as a Southern belle on her dream vacation to tour the sites of her favorite British novels. She’s working class as opposed to the life of glamorous leisure led by Tobias or the prim ladylike elegance of Caroline or the dramatic extravaganza that is Simone. We curated her costume pieces where it seemed like multiple ideas were coming together, some at odds. Such as a woman who is wearing travel wear/day wear for her train trip to her next destination, but she still wants to dress up with a little borrowed luxury to feel more elegant and fancy in her glamorous surroundings.
It’s like this: We started with a knee-length red dress covered in white polka dots. This gave Miriam a bright pop of color, helping her stand out. We have her wearing plan brown day gloves for travel wear. Her character just arrived by train before she was whisked away to this strange summer fete she wasn’t prepared for. But we wanted some element of glamour. Miriam wearing some sort of fancy piece to make herself feel like a queen on her vacation. We had her dig out her Grandmother’s fur from the attic (Really, a fur capelet first used in Bury Me in Paris), and she wore it like royalty. Then we topped it off with a simple red hat, perfect for day wear and travel wear. One last touch: A custom made train case that was once a plastic tote, but a little stage magic turned it into a stylish travel accessory. The effect is a fun mix of glamour and practicality.
Joanna Parth is almost the exact opposite of Caroline in terms of dress, although their work ethics are very strong. Joanna used to run Shayle Court as a kind of housekeeper and companion to Simone. But certain events and scandals have derailed that career, and now she works as a nurse at the local hospital. We pictured Joanna as tough, practical, competent, and unyielding. There’s a kind of strictness and even a malice in her character that frequently rubs Caroline the wrong way.
Joanna’s costume is a kind of militant Mary Poppins. She’s the most working class out of everyone in the show. She isn’t on vacation or living in the lap of luxury at Shayle Court. She’s at work. We kept her costume minimal. A black shirt dress and short black gloves fit the bill. There may be a whisper of pearls to help dress the look up. With her hair shellacked into a bulletproof bun and her scowl of disgust at all of Caroline’s party arrangements, this is one lady you do not want to cross.
Rowena Shaw is the last, but certainly not the least. She plays a very key role in the story. Her character is portrayed as “a background character, a shadow.” She’s the sort of person many people overlook. Bookish, intelligent, and socially awkward, we wanted her costume to break away from the skirts and dresses of the other ladies. We wanted a straighter cut, a less drapey, flowy silhouette. Since Rowena is training to be a dispenser (pharmacist) at a hospital, we wanted a look that felt believable for this scientific sort of mind, a costume you could believe in a lab while still being a touch dressy for the occasion.
So for Rowena, we decided upon trousers, which were really starting to take hold by the late-1940’s, particularly as women started entering the workforce due to the war. The trousers are a faint gray with a delicate pinstripe, almost evocative of menswear. We paired it with a short-sleeved white button-down shirt, open at the neck. It gave her a crisp, polished vibe. A sheer scarf in a bright accent fabric with these abstract flowers tied loosely around her throat gives her a dressier finish and a pop of color. And the contrast with the other ladies is striking, creating a more harmonious cast. After all, you can’t have everyone wearing the same outfit.
Sounds specific, right? But a lot of these pieces are simple, clean, and basic silhouettes. We can reinvent and recycle them show after show, adding embellishment or styling it with different items to create an entirely new look. Styling is what takes it from clothing to costuming. Don’t believe us? Wait until you see what we do with the costume brief for Anonymous. Ever try to make the same exact costume look special for different characters?
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we still have our tribute to Mrs. Christie to perform. Ode to Agatha performs Saturday, July 15th at 2 p.m. at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Chruch. Food, fun, games, and a mystery most cunning all set in the heyday of postwar Britain. Will we finally learn why a raven is like a writing desk? Attend Ode to Agatha and find out!
We hope to see you there!
–Master Mystery Productions