From paper dolls to gray converse: Costume design student Alexandra Ose explains her process

Between her work as a costume design major and her position as a Undergraduate Student Government Senator, working on multiple shows per semester makes Ose incredibly busy, but she can always think back to the lessons she learned from Travers. (Photo via Facebook)

Between her work as a costume design major and her position as a Undergraduate Student Government Senator, working on multiple shows per semester makes Ose incredibly busy, but she can always think back to the lessons she learned from Travers. (Photo via Facebook)

When “A Kind of Sad Love Story” came to the Studio Theatre Easter weekend, audience members may not have given much thought to the costumes. The female lead, Emily, wore dress pants and a blazer, while her male counterpart, Andrew, mainly wore a t-shirt and jean jacket. There were a couple of costume changes—shedding a layer, switching into a dress, putting on a pair of slippers—but there were no swinging hoop skirts or stovepipe hats, no ball gowns or uniforms. However, a lot of work goes into even seemingly simple costumes like these. When characters walk on stage the audience may see what they’re wearing, but they don’t see the months of preparation taken on by the costume designer—in this case, fourth-semester costume design major Alexandra Ose.

The decision to put Emily in a blazer and Andrew in a jean jacket goes all the way back to when Ose was a child, playing with a flip-top candy box full of paper dolls. She would trace each item of clothing for them out on patterned origami paper, mixing and matching to see what fit and what didn’t. These, Ose recalls, were some of her first designs.

Of course, at the time, she had no clue that all her playing could double as training for a future career. When Ose first came to the University of Connecticut, she hadn’t even officially declared her costume design major, but ultimately after hearing UConn alumnus Mitchell Travers talk about his work in costume design on movies like “Ocean’s 8,” she was won over.

“It was just amazing to hear him talk about it and see that someone actually made a life of it and is still enjoying what he does and has projects moving forward,” Ose said. “He also was very real about the whole process, which I found very refreshing.”

It was only after making this decision in her second semester, as she started working on shows in different capacities, that Ose could look back at her childhood of paper dolls, remember how her mother and sister would always come to her for fashion advice and see the roots of her interest.

Prior to working on “A Kind of Sad Love Story,” Ose worked on shows like the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s “Civil War Christmas” and the UConn Opera’s “Dido and Aeneas” as an assistant costume designer and wardrobe supervisor. “A Kind of Sad Love Story” was the first project in which Ose was the solo costume designer. This new capacity made her responsible for a number of decisions she’d never confronted before, and wasn’t able to anticipate until they were staring her in the face.

“[Actors] would ask me like, ‘Oh how should I do my hair,’ and I was like, ‘Oh whatever you feel is right,’ and they were like, ‘what?’” Ose said. “I was like ‘Oh no, that’s a choice I get to make.’”

Part of the reason Ose had this opportunity is because “A Kind of Sad Love Story” is part of the D Series Studio Projects, a series of shows run and produced entirely by students. Ose’s adviser reached out to her in the fall semester, encouraging her to work on one of the D series shows and giving her a choice between two.

“I was really interested in working with Melanie [Phaneuf, the director],” Ose said. “We had worked on my first show—she was an assistant stage manager and I was set crew—so I wanted to see what she could do directing.”

Having never been a solo costume designer before, Ose had to come up with her own process, based on what she’d learned from other classes and shows.

She started by reading through the script a couple times, taking note of details like setting and dialogue that referenced clothing. In “A Kind of Sad Love Story,” the two main characters describe what clothes they were wearing when they first met. For Andrew, who was wearing house slippers, this outfit wasn’t difficult to retrieve, but Emily was described as wearing gray converse sneakers with a cream-colored, flower-patterned dress and a maroon ribbon. Ose got lucky, finding this outfit just days before the show, with the exception of the converse.

“Converse are so expensive, so I had to budget,” Ose said. “That was like half my budget.”

After reading the script, Ose did some dramaturgical work, researching the setting for more clues. “A Kind of Sad Love Story” takes place in San Jose, California, so Ose was looking for things like the climate [warm] and culture [a large college influence].

Ose then determined her own image of each character, what they would look like and what seemed important for her to communicate through costumes. After this imagining, she made a PowerPoint to give the director of the show, Melanie Phaneuf, an idea of what she was thinking. Searching around on the web, Ose compiled a slide for each character with specific clothing items and general aesthetics.

Ose also had to include elements that could help indicate time. “A Kind of Sad Love Story” didn’t proceed chronologically, so sometimes something like taking off a jacket was used to indicate going back in time. These kinds of ideas were also first conceived of in the PowerPoint.

Ose also met with scenery and lighting designers to share their ideas. According to Ose, lighting and costumes work together very closely.

“Lighting can make or break your costumes,” Ose said.

Following this, Ose moved on to sketches, compiling the bits and pieces of her research into a single unified image. This then lent itself to the pieces list: A description of every article of clothing Ose would need to collect.

Once she knew what she was looking for, Ose could go through the costume stock already owned by the drama department. In the bowels of Jorgensen, there lives a large room filled with racks and stacks of clothing, so much that you would think Ose could outfit all of campus.

The budget for costumes on “A Kind of Sad Love Story” was very small, so if anything was missing from the stock, the next steps would have been thrifting or asking actors to bring in their own clothes. Actors aren’t allowed to provide their own clothes for CRT shows, but for a two-day student-run production, those rules don’t apply. Many of the male actors wore their own pants and shirts in the performance.

This is followed by fittings, photographed for the director. Phaneuf had to approve all the decisions Ose made at each step to make ensure everyone was on the same page and Ose’s image for the show matched her own.

One compromise came in the form of the three female characters: All exist in the business world, but in very different ways. Ose put one of the bossier characters in a pencil skirt and heels, professional and a little sexual. The second was hard-working and successful, Ose dressed her in in pants and a blazer. On the third woman, however, Ose and Phaneuf’s ideas differed.

“There’s another woman who’s kind of in the middle, where she gets promoted ,but she’s very quiet as a person, and I had her in more flowy skirts and dresses and we didn’t really agree on that point,” Ose said. “I had to go back and be like, let’s try a sweater vest, let’s try a cardigan, let’s try to tone it down in that sense … We did determine that the three were very different and they couldn’t have the overlap of their own styles, which was interesting to find.”

After fittings, clothes could be tailored if they needed it, hemming a cuff or a pocket, getting everything perfect for the day of the performance.

Shoes are the first costume pieces to show up at rehearsal, since they can affect how the actors perform. If an actress has to wear heels in the performance, rehearsing in sneakers may not properly prepare her. After shoes, things like jackets and scarves that may need to be taken on or off during the show are also added so actors can practice transitioning and using them as props.

Lastly, during tech week leading up to the performance, all the final details were ironed out. Ose could answer last minute questions—those she was ready for, and those she had to decide on the fly—making sure costume changes all ran smoothly and any tricky situations were solved before the days of the performance.

“I was basically hands-off from when final dress was done,” Ose said. “As long as nothing fell apart on stage, I was like, this was great.”

The play was performed on April 19 and 20, showing off Ose’s hard work on stage. Again, in a piece like this, it may seem like the characters could have just walked off the streets of any American city, but Ose also explained how a lot of decisions can still subtly influence what the audience is thinking about a character.

“Even how you button a suit tells a lot about what someone thinks of themselves,” Ose said. “So if a suit is buttoned up all the way, it’s like, “Oh they’re very neat and clean and everything else, but if it’s like one button, it says a different thing.’”

It is Ose’s job to think about these subtleties, and she has been thinking about them since the time all the suits she was working with were just origami-paper.

Between her work as a costume design major and her position as a Undergraduate Student Government Senator, working on multiple shows per semester makes Ose incredibly busy, but she can always think back to the lessons she learned from Travers.

“You get what you put into it, so if you put in the work, you’ll get recognized, you’ll get jobs, you’ll do well,” Ose said. “You’ll miss out on birthdays and weddings and holidays and anniversaries and everything else because you’re so busy, so you have to love what you’re doing.”


Alex Houdeshell is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.