The Costumes of “Virginia Woolf”

When working on a period show, the costume shop often has to rely on finding vintage pieces or making similar garments themselves. But luckily for this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the styles of the 1960s are making a comeback (probably due to the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men).

“The fashions on the television screen have trickled into the mass market and it’s now possible to go to the mall and buy slim tailored suits, skinny ties, and even hats and not have to rely completely on vintage pieces to obtain an authentic look,” says costume designer Jade Bettin. “This is a very fortunate coincidence when one is trying to create costumes for a show like Virginia Woolf that is set in 1962.”

But the design process still took some research. “Of course my immersion in the silhouette of the late 1950s and early 1960s went beyond Mad Men,” Bettin says. “After my initial design meeting with [director] Wendy Goldberg and the other members of the design team, I collected a large amount of images that solidified my understanding of the details of the period.”

1962 Brooks Brothers fashion illustration from Bettin’s research

Bettin also had to work with – and at times against – the vibrant set design, which she previewed not long after that first design meeting. “I opened the email and saw – was that a bright patent red floor and ceiling?” she said, adding, “I think my initial thought was, well, I guess I’m not using green.”

Though the set offered certain restrictions, it  also provided inspiration. “My journey to find the colors that work for each character and with this set has been a very interesting one,” says Bettin, who chose saturated colors for the character Martha.

“In reading the play and focusing in on the character of Martha, I always got the sense that she didn’t quite fit – that she was not content playing the role of 1950s housewife,” she said. “So that saturation hints at her discontent and also ties her to the color of the floor and ceiling and one of the other most interesting pieces of the set for me – the abstract painting that is commented on in the dialogue.”

Untitled 15-P by Edward Dugmore, a 1959 abstract painting that
inspired Bettin’s design (source: www.abstract-art.com)

“The abstract paintings of this period are canvases filled with bold splashes of color that speak to raw emotion,” Bettin says. “Sounds like Martha to me.”