These dresses are kicking my ass

by moxielicious

We asked MOXIE Design Ambassador (yep that’s her real title) Jennifer Brawn Gittings to talk about her costume design for The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. Everyone who has worked with JBG (that’s her rapper name) agrees she is a genius designer. The San Diego Union-Tribune dedicated a whole article to her work, ironically also focusing on dress-making. Here’s a look into her process and how much work and thought goes into just two of the costumes you’ll see in the show.

Who knew building simple dresses could be so hard?

Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936 Photographed by Dorothea Lange

 I’ve been designing costumes professionally for 20 years now, and some of my favorite productions have taken place in the 1930s (from To Kill a Mockingbird to Cabaret).  I have books about the depression, including collections of photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and my own paternal grandmother lived through the dust bowl, making the trek from Arkansas to California and back again (twice!).

 But designing these two dresses is kicking my Design Ambassador ass.

 The first is for Pace, a teenage girl obsessed with the train that thunders over the Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.  She climbs the Trestle, she swears, she spits.  We are reminded several times that she’s not pretty (“It keeps coming back to me” says the fifteen year old boy, Dalton).  We discover she makes her own clothes (by necessity) but it is fair to say it is implied that she takes no pride nor receives any joy from this act.  So.  My instinct is to keep the dress as simple and functional as possible.  No fancy tucks or princess seams or decorative stitches – she wouldn’t bother with that.  No trims – she probably couldn’t afford it.  No buttons or zippers either (buttonholes and zippers can be tricky for even an accomplished seamstress; Pace would probably opt for something she can just pull over her head).  But Pace is practical and smart, so maybe a short sleeve to keep her shoulders from getting burned by the sun that dried up the riverbed beneath the Trestle.

So let’s see…simple dress…ummm…I think I’ve just designed a potato sack with sleeves.

“Allie Mae Burroughs”- Photographed by Walker Evans

The second dress is for Dalton’s mother, Gin.  She is desperate to keep up appearances, to keep her family going, to be “normal”.  She has a job, but her husband is out of work, and they’re too poor to buy their son a new pair of shoes.  So her dress she has probably had for quite some time, mended again and again to “make do”.  I found a terrific 1930s vintage reproduction print, perfect for Gin.  Love the pattern, love the colors…hate that there was only 2 1/8 yards of it.  You can’t make a dress with that little fabric!  (Unless it is a potato sack with sleeves…oh wait…there might already be one of those in this show.)  So now I’m being forced to do what Gin herself would need to do: look at my other scraps and leftover fabrics and see how I can piece it all together to make a dress that is still fashionable enough to wear to work and council meetings.  Many women during the depression would use flour sacks and feed sacks, recycling them into fabric for aprons and dresses.  I’m trying to embrace the spirit of this, but I keep feeling like Dr. Frankenstein in a sewing machine laboratory creating a fabric monster out of all sorts of odds and ends that don’t go together.

So there’s my problem.  Two not-so-simple simple costumes.  Can I be true to these wonderfully written characters and help with the visual storytelling and not distract the audience with my Sleeved Potato Sack and Frankendress?  Come see Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and find out.

(And if you want to know more about what goes into designing for the stage, sign up to take my School of MOXIE class, Design Seminar, on October 22nd, from 6-9pm.)