Whenever I tell my friends that I have been helping out with costumes for the Town Hall Theater (THT), they immediately reference the popular mockumentary, “Waiting for Guffman.”
“Is it really that absurd?” they always want to know. And each time this happens, I can honestly answer, “Yes, yes it is.”
But it’s absurd in a really charming way.
I have a confession to make — I’m a closet “Gilmore Girls” fanatic and I would be lying if I tried to deny the fact that I have compared the quaint shire town of Middlebury to the fictional Stars Hollow more than once. And when I was asked to help out with the costumes for the THT production of “The Permit,” I immediately thought of Lorelei Gilmore dyeing white Santa Claus beards brown for the Stars Hollow Elementary production of “The Fiddler on the Roof.”
As I altered an Italian-wool skirt from the 70s, I pictured Lorelei, again, stitching up a crimson Revolutionary-War era gown for the historical reenactment of Stars Hollow’s founding.
Though I hopped onboard the production team fairly late in the game — they were quite desperate for help, otherwise I’m sure they wouldn’t have requested my meager seamstress skills — I feel as though I’ve gotten to know each of the cast members at least a little bit, which has definitely been the best part of this surprisingly stressful experience.
The drama (pun intended) of theater costume “design” is quite intense. First of all, everyone seems to have his or her own conception of 1970s fashion, and none of these seem to overlap all that well. I use the early years of “The Brady Bunch” as opposed to the later years of the show as an example — disco fashion is much different from what normal, everyday wear looked like in the early to mid-70s. And even when we arrived upon a clear vision for an outfit, tracking down the necessary items proved astonishingly difficult.
First, there’s Tanya. She plays Thelma, a young, blonde secretary with low self-esteem and no hopes of a boyfriend. Her costume started out as a gunmetal gray shift dress with nearly no shape to it — modest, like both Thelma and Tanya — but not quite up to par with the real Tanya’s bright personality. We tried to dress it up with a turquoise, pink and purple scarf with a funky print, but it was still a bit blasé. Her outfit for the second act, too, was a bit too bland. The light blue shift dress was lovely, but just not quite crazy enough for the liberated Thelma who dances atop a disco box in the final scene.
We were at a loss for what to do when Barbara Andres — who plays one of the town gossips — saved the day, bringing in two tiny, authentic 1970s dress — one, a floral print mixing goldenrod, oranges, greens, pinks and violets, and a black wrap shirt and matching skirt that, when combined, appear to be one solid dress. Barbara also presented Tanya with a pair of tiny, purple velvet lace-up shoes, with small platform heels, that used to belong to her mother. The shoes are perfect for the costume, but when I first glimpsed them, they vaguely resembled the shoes that the Wicked Witch of the East slipped her striped feet into just before ignoring the tornado warning and going out to buy groceries.
It seems as though at least half of all of the costumes and accessories were dug out of Barbara Andres’ attic. Barbara and her husband and fellow actor, Glenn, a professor of the History of Architecture at Middlebury College, have been in several Middlebury Community Players productions since they moved to Addison County. The Salisbury couple is nothing short of wonderful — Professor Andres (Frank, in the play) always asks how things are going and then listens sympathetically as I babble on about my day. And Barbara — Barbara is someone that I want to sit and chat with for hours on end. Perhaps it’s our Midwestern bond that draws me to her side in the awkward spaces between getting ready for the show and waiting for the show to start (she grew up in western Illinois), or maybe it’s the fact that she reminds me of my grandmother — not in age or appearance or anything of that sort, but it’s something about the way she pulls out her sewing kit and just intuitively knows what to do, or her willingness to help anyone at anytime or maybe it’s her playful sense of humor.
Last night, just before the first performance began, Barbara was having her hair fluffed up and as the hairdresser paused to get more hairspray or another comb, Barbara joked that she was all finished — she looked like a redheaded bride of Frankenstein with her hair sculpted to stand straight up. Later, after her high-set hair had been tamed slightly, the cast was getting its group picture taken, and the photographer told her to move forward. “We can’t see you,” he told her. Barbara responded with, “I don’t see how that could be possible.”
As Barbara sat waiting to run lines with her co-gossips (Algy Layden and Jennifer Wagner), she told me the story behind the black, sheer wool ensemble that Thelma (Tanya Lehman) wears in the final scene. She had sewn it herself when she and her husband lived in Rome during the time in which he worked as a fellow for the American Academy. In Italy, she found herself with a great deal of free time, and so she decided to take up a hobby. She and a friend went in on a machine together and, because money was tight, began hunting through bargain bins of fabric scraps — end-of-bolt pieces of last-season’s fabric in unwanted colors and prints. But occasionally, she said, she would find something great. The sheer black wool of Thelma’s outfit was one of these great finds.
“I had never seen sheer wool like that,” she told me. The fabric resembled a kind of linen, but it had a looser weave, and it seemed finer, softer.
“It’s really something,” I agreed.
She told me that one of the great mysteries surrounding the dress is how the belt was attached to the outside.
“I just can’t remember how I attached it,” she said. “I must have just pinned it.” She sat in reflection for a moment before looking at me and shrugging, and she rolled her eyes good-naturedly.
“Oh well,” she laughed, the bright blue rubber bands of her late-bloomer braces showing.
Tamara Hilmes is at firstname.lastname@example.org.