Stitch by Stitch

“Here is where all the action takes place,” Assistant Professor of Costume Design and Technology Sigridur Johannesdottir says as she walks into GW’s costume shop. By “action,” she means the sketching, stitching and styling by aspiring costume makers in the Department of Theatre and Dance, who make wardrobes for the university’s six annual productions and for professional companies in the city, like the Washington Stage Guild.

Inside, shelves and drawers overflow with tiny pins, buttons of every hue, tangles of zippers and stalks of white steel for corsets.

Students must create hundreds of looks—from ballgowns to handmade straw hats—that are stunning on stage but also highly durable. “Costumes need to last much longer than clothing,” Ms. Johannesdottir says. “They are worn night after night, and they need to look brand-new each time.”

— By Julyssa Lopez


Photos by William Atkins

mannequins in costume

Engineering the Costumes

Costumes look just like regular clothes on the outside but are engineered differently on the inside. They are built to be easily altered for different body types, and designers often strengthen fabric with layers of heavy-duty cotton in a process called flatlining. The shop has dress forms in about 10 sizes, and a model with legs was recently purchased for making pants. Designers can tailor costumes to match exact measurements by padding the forms with foam. 

sewing machines

The Workhorses

“These are the workhorses,” Ms. Johannesdottir says. The shiny domestic Bernina sewing machines are safer to learn on than their industrial counterparts, and the manual process allows garment makers to perfect complex stitches, like zigzags and overlocks.

costume design drawings

The Show Bible

Designers meet with actors before a production and take all kinds of measurements—from head size to wrist width. That information goes into what designers call “the show bible.” Garment mockups are made with muslin, a coarse cotton weave that serves as a stand-in for expensive fabrics.


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