Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Distress" at the Costume Shop

Next week is Tech Week for Seattle Opera's production of Attila, when the company moves into McCaw Hall and one by one adds all the elements of production: the set, titles, orchestra, costumes, hair and make-up, lights, and finally the audience. So this week, at the Costume Shop, they're putting finishing touches on the costumes to get them ready for the stage and the lights. With the contemporary look Melanie Taylor Burgess has designed for Attila, finishing touches includes the curious process known as "distressing" the costumes.

Attila tells a down and dirty story of war, invasion, refugees, uneasy truces, and brutal power politics. The characters need to look as though they've been living hard for a while. So our skilled craftspeople in the Costume Shop distress the costumes, giving them the theatrical equivalent of years of wear and tear. Here, for instance, is a costume piece for one of Attila's men, before distressing:

And after, with dirt and texture painted-on:

The chain hanging from the pocket of this camouflage jacket is typical of the tools used by Jeanna Gomez, the artist responsible for distressing this piece; the heavy weight stretches the garment, bringing out the natural folds and wrinkles, and Jeanna then paints highlights onto the cloth, darkening the parts that get buried and brightening the spots where the lights will hit.

Stage light has a tendency to make everything look flat; the painting we're doing here, like stage make-up, fights that tendency, giving the pieces even more depth then they'd have in real life. When you buy new clothes off the rack, you want them to look flat and clean and spanking new. Distressing is the artful way of ruining that nice new look.

A couple weeks ago we posted photos of lots of our Attila costumes on our Facebook page. Those photos were taken pre-distressing:

Here, for instance, is Attila's great cloak, smudged as if he's gotten too close to one too many campfires while out on campaign:

You'll see some costumes getting destroyed onstage, too. The people who end up in Attila's entourage, whether soldiers or slaves, use the insignia of a big letter A. Here it is as painted, permanently, on a distressed costume:

But in the opening scene, you'll see Attila's men take several new prisoners and mark them in full view of the audience. They use a kind of chalk that can be sprayed at each performance and washed off between shows:

That way, the same costume piece will get distressed again and again--and the audience can see the process!


  1. I'm pretty impressed by how these costumes are neatly done. I might visit this shop soon.

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