Brecht to Dada to Dumpster Diver Décor
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. http://www.costumes.org/SHOWS/100pages/KARTASI1.HTM 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. http://www.costumes.org/SHOWS/100pages/Earnest1.htm
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?
#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
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 http://www.costumes.org/SHOWS/100pages/fashionshow04.htm 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
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
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
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.
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"
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.costumes.org/SHOWS/100pages/accredexhibit.htm
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.
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 costumes.org http://www.costumes.org/ADVICE/1pages/INDEXM.HTM
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 http://www.costumes.org/advice/1pages/ethics10.htm
). 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