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Interview with Tara Maginnis
Costume Manifesto Gallery  

From Brecht to Dada to Dumpster Diver Décor

Book Cover      threepenny.jpg (30432 bytes) Interview with Tara Maginnis

Ever since man discovered ways to cover skin, we having been playing dress up, even when it means having no where to go but to war, to lunch, to school, to work, to premières or even to the moon. Dressing has become more than ritual, it is a way of living, adorned with inspirational designer tags to lead us to the pinnacle of style. In an era when the delineation between art imitating life and life imitating art, is ever more diffused, costume design offers a final refuge from a legacy of you are what you wear.

Professor Tara Maginnis of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks whose childhood fascination for period styles eventually found full expression in the most ambitious single-handedly compiled and administrated website for costume design, The Costume Manifesto, has generously given Literati Magazine of her time. In this interview she not only shares openly her aspirations and dreams, but warmly gives insight into what it has meant to find herself a cancer patient.

L i t e r a t i: What got you interested in costume design?

Several things:  A book series that my parents bought for me when I was little by Time Life called "The Great Ages of Man" It was far too advanced reading for a tot, but the picture spread sections and the captions fascinated me.  The result was that before I was in 6th grade I knew the difference between Baroque and Rococo styles, what Art Nouveau and Benin Bronzes were, and was therefore fascinated by any "period" movies or TV that was out there.  The next step was Masterpiece Theatre, which started when I was in the 5th grade, and which I watched religiously.  In High School, however, the thing that finally pitched me over the edge into costuming was Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which I was introduced to then, which gave me a burning desire to put to use all my historical fascinations into a concrete form on stage.  Live theatre is more addictive than most drugs, and I've been hooked ever since. 

L i t e r a t i: Any particular genre of design or period that you feel particularly attracted to.

Actually, despite all my early "period" leanings, what I enjoy most doing now is more abstracted "wearable art" kinds of designs.  I had great fun last year designing a show that was based on computer/role playing games, where the designs were based on comic book and RPG manual style images. One of my favourite"period" show designs was The Importance of Being Earnest (in 2000) where I dressed everyone in 1890s style clothing, but it was all made in transparent white to show the internal supports like bustles, underwear, corsets, etc.

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0  L i t e r a t i:  Is  teaching as much a passion as designing itself? We wonder what most attracts you to teaching design as to solely practicing it?

The variety of the work, and the way that teaching forces you to think more critically about what you are doing.  Because you have to be able to explain your choices to students it forces you to think more about how and why those decisions are made.  Teaching in a small college also means you are shifting gears a lot, doing everything from teaching makeup, researching and drawing, helping people borrow costumes, sorting, sewing, dyeing, painting,lecturing on history and messing about on the computer, often all in one day. It really helps to keep you from being bored or getting into a design "rut". 

L i t e r a t i:  How and why did you set about putting together such an extensive  costume design website and how have you managed to maintain it with your professional academic commitments?

Weird to say I had an idea about the "Manifesto" as it later came to be called years before the internet came into existence.  I had been messing about at a very early tourist information computer kiosk in San Francisco in the mid 1980s, and I had my first chance to see how a computer program could allow a person to organise information and pictures in a non-linear fashion, with links that could put one into multiple directions, with pop up info on details.  In short, hyperlinking.  The minute I saw it I knew that was the form I'd always wanted to teach costume history in, especially after I had seen James Burke's "Connections" series on TV.  That was the way I saw history, as a series of bouncing connections between periods that are  not arranged neatly in a linear format.  The problem was I knew nothing about computers, and I could see from this (at the time) state of the art kiosk's limitations for number of images and pages, that even if I had all the money and computer knowledge to work making a similar system, that the technology was not yet in place to do all that I wanted to do.

Coming from Northern California though, I had faith that the system that could do what I wanted would come eventually, and it did.  In 1996 I went to another computer kiosk at the Marin County Fair that was set up to surf the net (which had recently acquired the capacity for images, sounds, animations, video etc.) and I did my first search for costume information.  I knew at once that my ideal format had arrived, and with an extra I had not thought of: I wouldn't need to make all the information myself, I could also link to other people's sites and show multiple people's views.

So, within a month I'd ordered a new custom computer and a copy of Microsoft Front Page, and within a week of its arrival I'd put up my first (really awful) page.  I then pledged to myself to build a page a day for the next year, which I did.  The quality was poor, but it gave me a big start on which I could build. As a side note, I still build all my pages on Front Page 2000, and don't know more than a tiny bit of html.

Interestingly around the same time all the theatre faculty at UAF made big web sites, each of us working on our own without originally consulting the others! One feels so remote up here at times, and the desire to go out of doors in winter is virtually nil, so the WWW is the playground of the winter Alaskan. Routinely in winter, we (who have afternoon-nocturnal hours at work) are sending each other email back and forth at 4am.  So the situation we are in tends to encourage it.  And while there is little money at UAF (we all build our sites on our home computers, and pay out of pocket for outside hosting) we are taken seriously for our online and other computer work in the Tenure/Promotion process, which helps enormously in keeping one from giving up.

The best thing about web building work is that it can be fit in at any hour of the day or night whenever one has time.  While I'm working on a show I may not touch my site for a month and a half, then during breaks or summer, I may do nothing else.

L i t e r a t i:  What was your initial focus and intent with The Costume Manifesto?

Two things:
#1 To make pages and find links for all eras of costume history sufficient to allow a History of Fashion and Dress course to be taught online. (this is done)

#2 To replicate wherever possible the inside of my head.  I find as a teacher, that a lot of my ability to entrance students is based on what a colourful, odd being I am, so I'm trying to make the Manifesto resemble me as if I'd turned my molecules into HTML. This is why the Manifesto has weird personal sections like X-Men fan fiction, accounts of mushrooming with my cat, Dumpster Diver Decor, Poetry, etc.  I'm trying to avoid separating what I do as a designer and historian from what I am as a person.  Wherever possible I avoid writing in the third person, and try to keep even my technical how-to pages sounding like the way I speak in class.  (this is ongoing)

I began to suspect recently this latter goal is my weird way of dealing with the idea of dying eventually, as well as having no children, since when I was diagnosed with cancer in january nearly the first thing I was concerned about was how I might keep web hosting for the Manifesto paid for if I died.

L i t e r a t i:  What have you learned from this remarkable solo expedition into putting costume design on the virtual map?  Any particular incidences or experiences which stand out?

Since so much of the costume info on the web was built by hobby costumers, not educators or professionals, the sites that are out there tend to be NOT BORING. People write with great passion, humour and enthusiasm, which is not at all the usual thing in much published academic writing.  I find this makes writing for the web both more fun and more challenging than the traditional outlets for academic writers.

The web also means MUCH more exposure. Writing an article for a scholarly publication means between 500-1000 folks will get a copy, and perhaps 50-100 of those will read it.  One almost never gets a response from it beyond a "Nice article!" remark at a convention. It is like sending your writing into a black hole.  The web on the other hand is like broadcasting during halftime of the Super Bowl.  On a SLOW sunday in mid summer my site gets over 15,000 visitors, on a busy wednesday during the school year it runs to 50,000 with that jumping even higher in October.  One gets enthusiastic fan mail daily, letters from people begging to have their sites linked, plus LOTS of people asking for help (which often I can't give), and 5000 spam a day.  It is both great, and really too much at times for a person as reclusive as myself.

L i t e r a t i:  You have set up a remarkable historical archive.  How difficult was this to accomplish?

Well it took the majority of my Manifesto building time from 1996-2000, but it would have taken more than twice that time if I'd had to build it all myself from scratch.  Because hobby costumers had built such great sites for Renaissance, Medieval, and Victorian dress, I had very little that I needed to do in those areas beyond making basic outline pages and linking to outside sites. The big holes were the Baroque, 18th Century, Regency and early 20th Century, and so I concentrated my early efforts in my favourites of those those areas: 18th & 20th.  Happily I had written a narration for a video project for teaching 18th Century costume back in grad school, so I was able to adapt that script into the text for the 18th century sections.  Then another hobby costumer in Germany also started building her own great 18th Century site, so between the both of us we got that area covered.  Then during this time two more huge sites popped up that were themed with Baroque and Regency info. And smaller sites appeared on Egyptian, Greek and Roman dress. So eventually I just had to write up and get pictures for basic outlines of each, then find links to places where one could get more in-depth information outside. If there was not this huge number of applicable outside sites I'd still be working on setting up the basics for teaching an online costume history class ten years from now, as things are, much of my time is spent hunting for links and inserting them into the appropriate section of the site.

L i t e r a t i:  How has the challenges in your personal life health wise affected your relationship with design and teaching,  on both the practical and philosophical levels?

It directly motivated me to finally produce the big Wearable Art Fashion Show of my past work that I've always wanted to do.  It also motivated me to organize my classes better (so they would be easier for someone to take over if I was out sick) and to start filming my Stage Makeup lecture/demos for both backup and eventual distance ed.  However, needing to do lots of work on exercise/losing weight this summer, and time for radiation therapy before that has tremendously cut into my "free" time in which I usually build the Manifesto.  Normally over the summer I build 30-50 pages, this summer it's only 8, most of them pages designed to allow the Manifesto to pay more of it's own bills. (The financial drain of the illness has made making the Manifesto cost effective the top priority now).  So I guess it has forced me to concentrate my efforts on accomplishing just a few big things, and letting other smaller stuff slide.

L i t e r a t i:  Would you like to recount in whatever detail makes you comfortable how this unfortunate cancer diagnosis has changed your life now.

On the good side it has helped me prioritise better, say "no" to time-wasting activities better, and to exercise more.  I was in a private funk of indecision in the months leading up to my diagnosis, and the dust bunnies of trivial worry melted away in the face of  certain knowledge.  It quickly allowed me to decide that A,B, and C were important and would get my attention, and D,E,and F, were not, and they would be ignored.  This is how I managed to get the huge killer fashion show "up" onstage in the middle of my radiation therapy.  I just decided that the Fashion show, my radiation and exercise and showing up to teach classes was important, and anything else was "sorry, I'm too busy".

I now exercise daily, and have simultaneously dieted away 25 of the at least 40 "spare" lbs I wish to lose for health reasons.  Exercise is no longer something that hurts, though it can still make me dizzy.

My longtime biggest health problem has always been that I get mild migraines nearly constantly, and severe ones about once a month or so.  Tamoxophen (my daily anti-breast-cancer drug) significantly reduces the number of my migraines and has no other side effects (for me).  The irony of this is that I've been testing out dozens of different anti migraine drugs since 1995, none of which have worked, all of which had nasty side effects, and one of which was the cause of my original weight gain.  Exercise annoyingly tends to make them worse (contrary to what most people report) and my migraines were in their worst mode when I first began exercising, before the Tamoxophen. So getting breast cancer actually has helped me with my big chronic health problem by finally finding the drug I needed to make my headaches less severe and less frequent.

On the negative side, all that exercise sucks tons of time and energy out of my days, and dieting leaves me craving food constantly day and night, which makes concentration difficult.  While 95% of my medical costs have been covered by my health plan, the remainder, plus travel expenses related to surgery were enough to finally put me in debt this year, something I've avoided most of my adult life.  This means I have to concentrate more of my energy on making money beyond my salary, which is also a distraction.  However it has motivated me to make a promotion file in the interest of getting a raise, which I've meant to do for a while and had been putting off.

L i t e r a t i:  Is there particular message you would like to share with other patients and the general public  about your experience with this disease?

Do get tested.  Because I get yearly Mammos this was caught so early (long before it would be a feelable lump) that I didn't need chemo, have a 90% chance of no further complications, still have both breasts, and did not lose any work days beyond those I needed to go to the lower 48 for surgery.  Early testing doesn't just save lives, it saves one tons of trouble.

One in 8 women get this and most survive it, so freaking out and saying "why me?", blaming yourself or others, or assuming it's the end of the world is NOT really sensible.  When you first hear you have cancer, they won't be able to tell you if it is mild or severe for several days, so don't rush to assume you will be turning up your toes.  Among other things, the less you  carry the attitude that you are doomed, the longer and happier you will live regardless of the severity of the cancer.

When you first hear about this you will get a fight or flight response of a lot of adrenalin in your system. Don't waste this energy beating yourself up, but use it to think and prioritise what is most important to you.  Make lists of what you want to get done assuming both worst case and best case scenarios.  One of the main things that is actually good about cancer is the way people react to it: "Oh my GOD! Is there ANYTHING I can do?" If you have a list of important stuff you need to get done at work or home that might be endangered by chemo or radiation, the second a person blurts out that reaction you can delegate one of those important work tasks to that person, and even the flakiest person will guilt themselves into action to get it done.  This is how I quickly got my dean to find me a free videographer for my makeup class (after YEARS of being told there was no way to get one except by my impoverished dept paying for one), and how I got 5 student directors, 2 designers, a stage manager an 50 models for my Fashion show.  I have never had so many willing minions running about putting tons of effort into finding me what I needed, and all because I had made a list and pounced on the "Is there anything I can do?" phrase while it was hot.  This is a one-shot deal, but it can make it possible to do great things even while you are dealing with cancer treatment.

L i t e r a t i:  It seems to be an experience that has given you more drive and determination than ever?  What new horizons do you envisage for yourself  and the website in the future?

Yes, crisis situations tend to get me pleasantly hyped up and give me extra energy.  I think that is why I do so well at first dress rehearsals, travel and even street confrontations with minor thugs (!).

I do want to write a print book soon, one that is full of what I call "costume porn": detailed closeup photos of costumes looking lush and (to costumers) edible.  I was working on this before the cancer and alas this was one important thing that had to go on hold.

As for the Manifesto, I want to make it a little easier to navigate, and break some pages into smaller ones so they load faster.  I also want to add video clips and VRML images next, for the makeup sections, costume how-to sections, shows and history section. Of course to do this I'll need to keep paying for my own private high speed server, so right now working on getting the Manifesto to generate more of its income is the first thing that has to happen.

L i t e r a t i:  Your costume designs for Kurt Weil’s   Threepenny Opera: What were your initial  sources of ideas and inspirations for these designs?

A book of drawings by George Groz entitled Ecco Homo. Groz was an illustrator who worked closely with Brecht and Weill on their production of The Good Soldier Schweik.  When we decided to do 3PO in the era in which it was written rather than the (Victorian) era in which it is theoretically set, Groz was my first choice for visuals.  Later I found other German illustrators like Otto Dix that I borrowed from as well.


L i t e r a t i:  The designs particularly captivating as they seem to be unusually close to the original concept and feel of the original Weil and Brecht production of 1928.Your sketches of the costume designs I find very evocative of the essence of the story it tells. Could you expand on what motivated these choices of design?

That is largely because I made an effort to actually draw in the style of Groz and Dix, which means that one loses less of the original intent, and keeps more of the feel for the style as you are working in the shop from the drawings.  Actually I try to find or make a specific drawing style that captures the feel of a show for each set of "costume show" renderings (some shows the design needs to recede, and so I don't do this).  It is actually the hardest part of designing a show.  You have to find a drawing style, learn to draw in it, and then the costumes tend to flow out from that pretty easily.  The big "hump" to get over is finding that style, and then keeping to it, in many cases by literally making one's rendering an adapted copy drawing from some famous illustrator. Lysistrata I built directly upon the drawings by Aubrey Beardsly, Don Juan came out of Callot, Magic Flute was made by combining elements of Ancient Egyptian wall paintings with photos of 1920s Hollywood "biblical" epics.

Another thing that I think made my designs good for 3PO was the fact that the show is one I am very familiar with and very fond of.  I found while working on the show that I knew the characters and themes of the show better than the director did, so design choices were rather easy and flowed from a mind that had been fascinated with Weimar film and art since college.

L i t e r a t i:  How easy or difficult is it to realise  these ideas into the actual clothes worn by  the actors on stage in any given production,  or is this affected by the nature of each show?

It is very much the nature of each show.  3PO was fairly easy because we had done Cabaret earlier, and I had made a lot of the costumes from that show as watered down versions of Groz and Dix images, and we could reuse them and just make them nastier looking with slight changes in the style of wearing and makeup.    I really enjoy making grotty sleazy costumes out of bits and pieces, which is pretty much the need for any production of 3PO, so it was actually not too bad despite being a big cast/small budget deal.

L i t e r a t i:  How much preparation time does it take  From initial concept to the actual finishing  touches of the garments and accessories

        LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

It varies depending on the show and the schedule. Essentially you work within the allotted schedule (between 1-2 months) and produce it out as well as can be done within the allotted time.  On shows where we have an unusual amount of lead time like Les Liasons Dangereuses, The Mikado or The Importance of Being Earnest (3 months!) you just produce a better show, on the other hand, last fall when my 3 student designers flaked off of their 3 student shows 3 days before first dress I and my fearless assistant Lorraine Pettit did the three shows in 3 days.  They won't be appearing in my portfolio soon as great art, but they were decent enough for me to put my name in the program.

L i t e r a t i:  Which brings me to ask, with accessories, are these also designed for each production?

Sometimes.  It entirely depends on whether the production can use existing stock, or whether it needs (and we have time for) new bits to be made for it.  So for The Mikado we built EVERYTHING down to the fans and underclothes, for 3PO 95% of all the costumes on stage were adapted stock.  In many cases the adaptations however are the most interesting thing you can do.  It is so much more fun to paint and alter an existing suit jacket than to try to make one from scratch.  Twiddling shoes, gloves and hats are also satisfying while not being too labour intensive.

L i t e r a t i:  Have you ever had a public exhibition in Alaska of your work?

I did one for the occasion of the UAF accreditation team visit in 2001 after the makers of the official main Assessment Display room asked if I could exhibit some costumes there.  I sent stuff over, and they quickly realised what I'd sent was more than the rest of the campus had sent in total.  So they put a little in the official exhibit, then put more in the big  public room where the hearings were to take place, and the rest we put in the Great Hall which serves as our theatre lobby.  For details see

On two other occasions I've had costumes on display at the UAF Museum.  Once in 1991 where there was a show of designs both by myself and my predecessors at UAF, and last year when two of my costumes (one for Earnest and one for Liaisons) were included in the recent Made in Alaska exhibit.

However, the real purpose of the recent fashion show was to do precisely this, to exhibit the costumes on live bodies and then videotape it for future showings on the student TV station.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01   L i t e r a t i:  Any other comment you wish to add?

How I ended up with the name for The Costumer's Manifesto is a bit funny.  I've been a fan of The Dadaist Manifesto by Tristan Tzara since grad school,     and was amused by the unintentional silliness of The Futurist Manifesto by Marinetti.  While I was living in Russia for a year (1994-1995) I started writing what I call the self-help advice book section of I ended up discussing with Russian friends how I wanted to include in it some sort of artistic manifesto similar to the above two works but was having trouble writing it (in fact I only finally did so recently ). One of my Russian friends said, "You mean like 'The Costumer's Manifesto'? which all the Russians found endlessly amusing, (for reasons of sounding like the Communist Manifesto) so much so, that I kept thinking I have GOT to find a use for this title.  When I began working on the web site I found that there were two links lists that were already called The Costume Site and The Costume Page respectively, so I went with The Costumer's Manifesto since I was certain nobody else would have that name.

Literati Magazine expresses its appreciation to Professor Maginnis for her generosity in allowing the free use of material from The Costume Manifesto.