All in the Details


Costume renderings. Photo by Annelyn Ayran.

It’s four days out from opening night and B.F.A. Costume Design student Shelby Lionella has a laundry list of alterations and decisions to make before the first technical, or in-costume, rehearsal. Altering dresses and pants, labeling shoes for the actors, organizing a quick-change protocol, meeting with the director and production team; the list goes on. But for this moment, her focus is on buttons.

As costume designer for the Academy of Art University’s School of Acting 2017 fall production, Six Degrees of Separation (running through Dec. 9 at 620 Sutter theater), details such as buttons, brooches and belts are critical.

Costume and set design work in tandem to build the affluent world of art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge. Set in 1980s New York City, the Kittredges live a comfy lifestyle, but when charming con man Paul Poitier, stumbles upon their doorstep their glitzy, glamourous lives become far from primped and primed.

To depict the Kittredges’ elite status, Lionella relied on statement wealth pieces, such as blazers, tuxedos, evening gowns and suits. Show director Clark Houston Lewis said, “There was a way to tell the story about [the] milieu,” through the clothing, a “collegiate look that was very upper-middle class.” With Six Degrees as a period piece, some items were thrifted but Lionella said most of the garments and accessories were shopped simply because, “The ‘80s never left.”

“It’s all still relevant and able so when you go through shops – including Amazon and places like H&M – you can just put those pieces together and it winds up vaguely ‘80s,” she said in the theater dressing room. “It worked out really well.”


Shelby "Lio" Lionella. Photo by Annelyn Ayran.

Costumes also act as indicators of story and character development. Use of color, in particular, not only reflects personality, said Lewis, but also what’s going on internally and the state of the characters’ relationships.

At the beginning the play, frosty, forward-thinking Ouisa wears cold purples and grays (“She knows what she wants: Money, a nice life, her kids to go to a good school,” Lionella said) before transitioning into warmer hues throughout her relationship with Paul.

“There’s a lot of visual information we can get across—without anybody saying anything—by what they wear and the way they wear it [and] how what they wear interacts with everybody on stage,” Lewis comments.

Lionella and her team started conceptualizing costumes two months prior to production as part of the B.F.A. course FSH 242 01: Costume Production 1 with Costume Design Coordinator Alina Bokovikova. Photos and measurements of the actors are taken before conducting research to draw renderings of different looks. Some actors have five to six costume changes and most looks need at least four different options in case the primary outfit clashes with the set.

“Costumes and stage tend to compete, [but] we have to figure out how to balance the colors in our pieces with the colors of the set,” Bokovikova said.


Krista Edge. Photo by Annelyn Ayran.


Zaya Kolia, Alexia Rodriguez (assistant costume designer) and Shelby Lionella (lead costume designer). Photo courtesy of Alina Bokovikova,


Jessica Schamaus. Photo by Annelyn Ayran.

In the days leading up to the show, costume designers and assistants are hand-sewing alterations, pressing hems and improvising with accessories to prepare for the technical rehearsal. This is the first time the clothes are seen on stage, Lionella said, and sure enough, the actors shriek and squeal as they admire each other in full-wardrobe.

Collectively, the students appeared to have traveled back to a time when the guys left the top button open on their wide-collar shirts and girls paired patterned pencil skirts with oxford heels. Pastel blazers rubbed elbows with power suits and bold accessories added detail to the overall look.

That initial dress-rehearsal was a first look into the world of Flan and Ouisa, played by Zaya Kolia and Renee Rogoff, clad in suit and gown. Paul, played by Michael Houston, came off cool, calm and collected, whether in his swaggered suit or stripped down to his underwear.

For that first run, it was about taking notes on what works and what doesn’t, counting time in between costume changes and further collaborating with the director to help “realize the play’s vision.” But Lionella stressed that at the end of it all, the goal is to be able to “sit through the audience and enjoy what you have.”

“My job as a costume designer is to make the audience look at the actors’ faces,” Lionella emphasized. “It’s to put them in a world and make the actors feel like they’re in that world and make the audience recognize they’re in that world.”