A conversation with Sarah Fulford on building the costumes for All My Sons
By Cohen Ambrose, Production Dramaturg
Last week, I sat down with the School of Theatre & Dance‘s Visiting Assistant Professor of Costume Technology Sarah Fulford, who was hired by the Rep as the draper for the 2016 National Tour production of Arthur Miller‘s All My Sons.
CA: You are the draper on the Rep’s production of All My Sons. What does a draper do?
SF: The draper is the person who takes the costume designs from the designer and figures out how to make the pattern that will make the garment into a real thing. [Costume designer] Chris [Milodragovich] gave me her designs, which were quite clever actually. They came from these vintage pattern images. However, these are not complete patterns, so I had to figure out how to interpret each pattern and make an actual garment out of them. The really nice thing about using pattern illustrations is that it’s a really easy thing to follow, as opposed to a costume rendering or illustration, which is more about the designer’s emotional responses and telling the story of the character. But by assigning a specific pattern to a character, as the draper, I know that someone has made this pattern into a garment before, so I don’t have to guess. In this case, the communication between the designer and I is a lot simpler because we know what we’re looking at. Because this process has been so clear-cut, I patterned one of the dresses, mocked it up in muslin, we fitted it on the actress, the pattern has now been corrected, and it’s ready to go into final fabric already after only one fitting, which is very rare. Usually, you have to go through two or three incarnations of a pattern before you can go to final fabric, but because Chris was really clear about what she wanted and she was able to give me a really functional illustration, I was able to make quicker, more educated choices. So that’s what the draper does: they say, “Okay, this is what the designer wants, now I’ll make it functional.”
CA: In what ways are you including students in this process?
SF: At the beginning of the semester, I was able to get through all of the builds, but I was optimistic that some of the students would be advanced enough to be responsible for all of the initial fittings, pattern truing, and constructing the final garments. Additionally, it looks like we might have some student volunteers who will also be taking on projects. We’re hiring some advanced costuming students for the production. I’m really excited about seeing what they produce. My little teacher heart-strings are all a-twitter.
CA: Tell me a bit about your costume construction and design background.
SF: I’m primarily a technician. I have a bachelor’s degree in costume design with a focus in costume tech from an interdisciplinary program at Western Washington University. I focused on pattern-making, which is pretty rare. Most undergraduate programs don’t have a pattern-making focus. Then I interned at the American Conservatory Theatre where I was a stitcher. I worked on a whole bunch of touring productions while I was there. I worked in the industry for four years before going to get a postgraduate certification at the London College of Fashion with a focus in industry standard pattern-making, which was more focused on High Street production. Then I worked as a stitcher in Seattle, when I got a position with a company called Teatro ZinZanni, which is a circus company. That was really fun. I was the head pattern-maker for the company there. I worked on a lot of really weird costumes there – a lot of stretchy things with sequins for acrobats. Then I was also teaching in between jobs, which I really loved and realized that I love teaching even more than I love pattern-making so when this job came up, I thought “Oo! I can make patterns and teach all the time,” so I came here. Another interesting fact is that the person who trained me at WWU, got her Master’s here [at UM] and she was trained by Chris.
CA: How do you build a dress for someone who is not present to be fitted?
SF: Well, we hope that the person who took their measurements and sent them to us did a really good job, which is not always the case, and then you use common sense. My fashion background really helps there because in the Rep’s model when you don’t always have immediate access to actors, you have to make standardized sizes for people and you always put in more fabric. Just make it bigger and assume you can take it out. You can always take it out but you can never put it back in. You just trust the measurements and make a choice. I feel okay about it in general because I’ve done it a lot. That’s why we go to school and that’s why we have internships, so we can get good at it. One of the great things about Teatro ZinZanni was that I got to work with the same performers over and over again, getting to know their bodies really well. Luckily, for All My Sons, the fabric is soft, so there’s some wiggle room. Chris wants them to look “soft” and “lived in,” which are her catchphrases for the feel of the costumes. So that gives us a little more room for less precise fittings.
CA: What kind of creative authorship do you have as a costume-builder?
SF: You get to a point where you can tell when a drawing or rendering is going to look wrong or look terrible in reality. Luckily, Chris is really skilled technician as well as a very fine designer, so talking to her is really easy because we already have the same vocabulary. For example, if anyone but Chris had given me this illustration, the problem with this line on this garment is that there is no way that a bust will actually fit in a garment this way. It’s physically impossible for a garment to actually be cut this way. This is a very ‘50s illustration that way. So there has to be a seam that goes over the bustline. But I tried anyway because you never succeed unless you try something. I tried a whole bunch of things to see if I could get it to do that – I cut it on the bias and I tried other things. So that’s the creative part of building costumes: what different techniques can I try to see if I can accomplish the thing? What I always tell my flat-patterning class is that the miracle of pattern-making is that you’re trying to make a flat thing fit a round thing. So, you have to figure out how to make a flat thing round, which is inherently creative.