Costumer's Notebook

Often as I'm working I get curious peeks over my shoulder at my various notebooks to see my sketches and what I'm working on. Working off this idea, I named my blog "Costumer's Notebook" to help share some of the design work, the challenges, the triumphs and the end results of putting together productions or projects. I've found the people really enjoy getting to see what goes on behind the scenes. 

Costumer's Notebook - A Gothic Folktale

September-October 2013


Garrett Ammon, the Artistic Director of Wonderbound, and I began our costume design concept meeting for A Gothic Folktale with a discussion of the show's title as our stepping stone into this project. Previously Garrett and I would meet for an hour about a concept. I would take notes, go away for a bit, spend 20 hours preparing what I called a pre-concept presentation, refine it and go on from there. A Gothic Folktale was the first show of Wonderbound's inaugural season and we mixed up our process a bit by sitting down together and working through ideas whereas I would always do this aspect alone. And down the preverbal "rabbit hole" we went as one always does when doing research.

The main thing we started exploring was the aesthetic behind the style of "gothic" as it is known presently. This in and of itself became a bit of an education. Presently "gothic" as a style predominately brings to mind the dark, broody blacks in a range of modern, Victorian and even medieval inspired silhouettes so often seen on youth today. This particular sub-culture has evolved into other sub-cultures and styles too nuanced and numerous to mention within the context of this article. (I personally encountered 16 types in my research, but I digress.)

When we began researching gothic in historical terms, Garrett was particularly slanted towards the "American Gothic" painting by Grant Wood and that genre. 

Once we headed down this path, we got into dust bowl era and americana and what kind of entertainments were available to people at that time- circus, vaudeville, carnivals, etc. The research gave us a really stable ground to start off from, with lots of inspiration.

In gathering ideas for the concept/show we went through a lot of photos to determine what the aesthetic would be (and equally important - what the aesthetic was not going to be). We spent hours pouring over vintage photographs, Googling "dark circus", "dark carnival", "night circus", etc. We quickly determined that we both resonated with late Victorian - 1940's Vaudeville. It wasn't so cliche as other themes and it had it's own sort of tattered charm that seemed really earthy.

I began to notice a repetition of tiny details in the vintage photos we were seeing. There were lots of chintzy, astrological elements the vaudeville performers were wearing as part of their costumes. As costume designer, I knew I had 6 ladies and 5 men that needed some kind of unifying element to bring the design together. I began thinking of some of the dancers as having themes related to astrological elements; sun, moon, stars, etc. When I threw out this idea to Garrett, he said "Well, let's explore that. What else has those elements?" And I replied with "Well, tarot cards do." We quickly went on another tear through the internet researching the tarot and it's elements and promptly landed on the main characters referred to as the Major Arcana. Within a very short time span we quickly started placing dancers, the band members and the Denver Illusionist and Mentalist Professor Phelyx into character concepts. 

We were enthralled with the idea of creating a bunch of vaudevillian characters in a traveling show. But coupled with the idea of each character representing a tarot card, there was this wonderful depth. During rehearsals I would watch each character going about their business in the show, but when I started thinking of them in terms of larger concepts like "Death", "Strength", "The Star"- it suddenly became this whole other thing.



Professor Phelyx had wonderful material and stories he shared with the production team. A book of old schematics for carnival attractions, movies, carne stories, magician lore and of course his own mind-bending illusionist feats. This coupled with Jesse Manley's dark and intriguing lyrics were an amazing creative generator. There were a few key photographs that were major stepping stones towards the final design.

You can check out my compiled inspiration board here on Pinterest. 

We knew we wanted to do a bolder color palette for this show, but we definitely wanted a tattered and worn look. We conceived them to be poor, traveling performers and their clothes would have been compiled and collected from random places and made into each person's treasured and patched performance costume- their very bread and butter if you will. I began shopping for key pieces in some of the wonderful vintage stores in the Denver metro area. Some of my finds were not necessarily part of my original design, however they were irresistible and seemed to shout "pick me!" so to a certain extent, with a firm idea in mind, I let chance lead me part of the way.



A Gothic Folktale- A Fool's Journey, was developed into the following characters:

The Fool - The show's janitor/handyman who was desperately trying to get his "big break". 

The Magician - Professor Pheylix. Naturally. ;)

The Star - The show's star in her white tutu and brown aviator cap and goggles.

Justice - The magician's assistant. Sometimes appeared blindfolded and danced with swords.

Strength - The stereotypical "strong man" often seen in turn of the century circuses and traveling shows.

Temperance - A white and golden horse trainer with a blue sash. Death's counterpart.

Death - A dark, mysterious lady all in black. One fan said she imagined the "death" character to be the black cat belonging to the gypsy couple. (The World and The Sun).

The Moon - The concept of a trapeze or "lyra" performer.

The Sun - A mysterious, golden haired gypsy man. 

The World - The fortune teller. Wife of the gypsy man.

The Traveler - A former partner of the show, recently returned from his time abroad.

The Hierophant - Also referred to as "The Producer"- manager and owner of the show.

The Devil - Jesse Manley and his band. (This placement was based off an old-time joke.)

The Chariot - Played by the "Death" and "Temperance" characters. This was a black and white themed play on Siamese twins. (Another inside joke as dancers Sarah Tallman and Julie King are often mistaken as "twins" even though they are completely different.)


There's always unique challenges in every show. However A Gothic Folktale was one of the most technically challenging shows due to the performance magic aspect of it. Some of it I can't elaborate on as it ruins the secrets of the tricks. But let's just say- for a costumer, this was an exercise in illusion. 

"A Gothic Folktale" featuring Mentalist and Illusionist Professor Pheylix and original music by Jesse Manley and his Band premiered on October 18th, 2013.

~Rachael :)

See production shots in the ballet gallery under A Gothic Folktale.