Behind the Curtain A peek inside the hidden world of the University of Oklahoma's Costume Shop

You probably know about OU Drama performances, but did you know that students in OU's Costume Shop design and create all the costumes for theatrical performances in house?

Little known, but prestigious, OU's costume design program was ranked as one of the top 10 bachelor of fine arts programs for theatrical design last year. Now, students are upholding their rank by finishing costumes for City of Angels, a play with a multi-universe plot that required resourceful and innovative costume design.

The musical, City of Angels, follows the story of a novelist whose book is being adapted into a film noir movie. The play follows two plot lines. One is set in Los Angeles where the novelist battles with the movie director in an attempt to keep the script true to his book. The other is the film noir movie being produced. Ben and Riley bring these two universes to life on stage using color dynamics in their costume designs.

Riley Smith created costumes in vibrant colors for the LA plot line. "I made it my goal to not have any black or white in my costumes to create as stark a contrast in the two realities as possible. The biggest challenge was finding good dress shoes that weren't black," said Smith.

Ben Burton created all black and white looks for the film noir plot in the play. “In a world of black and white and grey, it’s easy for everything to go flat. So I had to be creative with textures and accessories,” said Burton.

Ben and Riley spent countless hours during the summer researching iconic looks and creating designs. From there, they had 4 to 5 weeks to bring the looks to life in the Costume Shop.

Once they brought their designs to the shop, constructing the physical garments was a continual process. They had to synthesize their fashion research and their knowledge of the characters with their creative vision. “You can’t just choose what looks good and fits the time period. You have to take the character into account. It’s as much character analysis as it is knowing how garments work on a body,” said Burton.

This meticulous attention to design permeates the show in unexpected ways. Riley said he hid Easter Eggs for the audience in several costumes. "There’s a character in the show who is coming into her own. She’s a very budding personality, so I hid a motif of flowers in the patterns or even the silhouettes of her costumes. I gave her a tulip-shaped skirt in one of the scenes,” said Smith.

Their creative work challenges misguided perceptions about how costume shops function. “Everybody thinks that costume design is sitting down in a dark shop with their coke bottle glasses on, stitching, and eating Bonbons,” said Smith.

In reality, the OU Costume Shop is a place where artistry meets technical skills. “Being a designer is a big job and requires your vision, but the support of the shop is crucial. They're the ones doing a lot of the artistry in it. It’s a collaborative effort, but I think a lot of time, the shop doesn’t get the credit they deserve for their mastery of technical skills,” said Burton.

After weeks of hard work, their creative vision comes to fruition on stage. “When you see the actor in their costume for the first time and you see their posture change into the way their character would stand. It's a moment that you know you’ve done your job well because it’s making the actor do their job better,” said Burton

You can see the OU Costume Shop's work on stage in City of Angels this weekend. Performances will run from September 22nd to October 1st.

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