Dressmaker tailors to ’62 stars

One spot on campus that buzzes with perhaps even more activity than the Estrogym lies at the heart of campus, within the ’62 Center: the costume shop. Take a walk through, and you’ll see several students busy at work on tables, dashing around the room, throwing gauzy fabrics over the numerous dress forms or going through the rack of dance costumes in a side room. The costume shop is definitely hard to miss when walking through the ’62 Center, but many students have no idea what exactly goes on behind those large glass windows. The short answer? A lot.

As the only full-time staff member in the shop, Barbara Bell’s job description is quite lengthy. “The costume shop is responsible for every costume that comes out of the ’62 Center, which includes theater, dance and touring companies,” she said. “We produce about 150 to 200 costumes a semester.”

“Producing” can include anything from altering the costumes or renting from outside vendors to designing and constructing entire costumes in the shop. Most theater shows involve a student or faculty designer from the College who works with Bell to create the costumes. For instance, for Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Kate Foster ’08 designed all of the costumes and Bell used her drawings to make patterns, conduct fittings and eventually construct the garments.

Dance shows, on the other hand, usually require a guest designer or Bell herself to sketch the costumes. In these shows, more of the garments are purchased and then altered accordingly for performances, especially if multiple costumes are needed. The recent Kusika show alone required 80 costumes. Some of these were purchased from modern clothing stores like H&M while others had been used three years ago in a different show, but all were redecorated and fitted by Bell.

“From the beginning concept all the way through to closing night, I have to make sure that the costumes appear onstage, and, once it’s opened, my shop is also responsible for all the laundry and maintenance,” Bell said. Electra especially stood out to Bell because despite its fairly small build period for the costumes, the show required significant maintenance. “We were doing about 12 loads of laundry per night because everything was covered in mud and ketchup and Jell-O,” she said.

In addition to producing and maintaining costumes for current shows, Bell is responsible for maintaining the College’s costume stock, the collection of thousands of costumes from previous shows. The stock, which fills three large storage rooms and dates back to the 18th century, is used both by the theater and dance groups and by outside groups, such as the art and language departments.

Bell’s career in costuming did not start at the College. Before coming to Williams, Bell worked for 25 years as a professional freelance costume designer, which she describes as a little bit of everything. “You did a little bit of everything – You were the designer, you were the cutter, you were the stitcher, you did the wigs.”

Even though she works full-time for the College, Bell has continued to do some work in New York on the side. “In the theater business we have to continually keep abreast of what is happening,” she said. “It’s not a profession you read about, it’s a profession you must do, so to continue to be up to date, I need to keep doing.” Bell also continues professional work because it is important for her to be able to bring more professional experience back to her costume collaboration with students here.

Bell’s dedication to her students is undeniable. She cites the students as the “deciding factor” for her decision to come to Williams. She first became involved with the College in 1994, and worked intermittently on specific shows until 2005, but she was offered a ten-month position when the ’62 Center opened.

“I had no plans to stay permanently, until I worked with the students,” Bell said. “They’re terrific.” At the end of ten months, she was rehired and has been the shop supervisor ever since. One of her most rewarding projects, she said, has been working with Foster on the two Stoppard shows.

“I truly believe that I’m here in an educational environment to give [the students] what knowledge I have, and hopefully I’m doing that.” She also teaches the several work-study students who work for her each year, many of whom are not theater majors and have no prior sewing experience. They typically consider it to be the best job on campus. Bell explains that she structures it like a class, because she is teaching them, but that she also stresses responsibility.

“If they get anything out of what they’ve done, they’ve learned the responsibility of commitment and when they leave, they have that sense of commitment and professionalism in their first outside job,” Bell said. “I also hope that just as important is exposing them to the arts – to develop an appreciation of the arts and especially costumes. Hopefully I am helping them develop a love of the arts so that in the future, they will become patrons of the arts.”

If Bell’s recent students are any indication, she is certainly achieving those goals. Many students have moved on to work in theater, but they still stay in contact with Bell, especially for costume advice. This continued line of communication is what Bell had envisioned all along. “The true meaning of what I’m here for is to work with students in an educational system and to hopefully teach them, unofficially,” she said.

Though Bell may not officially be listed as a professor in the course catalog, for some, the “fishbowl” in the ’62 Center is a classroom where students take away valuable lessons and experiences – and that ten-page paper might have been exhausting, but try telling that to someone who stayed up doing 12 loads of laundry.