Deborah Brothers retires after 38 years as theatre department costume designer

Emily Zas

Deborah Brothers has designed costumes for over 85 shows. (Emily Zas/The Williams Record)

“We’re always performing,” Deborah Brothers, who served as a costume designer for the theatre department for 38 years, said in an interview last Friday. “We don’t even realize that when we put our clothes on each morning, our choices are a performative gesture — we’re consciously or unconsciously acting in the world.”

For that day’s “performance,” Brothers sported a jacket with green, yellow, and purple floral print. “I’m very aware that I’m trying to invoke spring and be formal and playful at the same time,” Brothers said of her outfit. “If you look outside right now, the violets and dandelions are coming up. And, of course, [these are the College’s] colors… but at the same time purple, green, and gold are the Mardi Gras colors in New Orleans.”

Brothers officially retired from her position as costume designer and lecturer in the theatre department at the end of the fall semester; however, she continued designing for SHAKUNTALA: the remix this semester. Over the years, she has designed costumes for over 85 productions, both at the College and for other theatres in the Berkshires. 

The carnival aesthetic of Mardi Gras is one of Brothers’s biggest inspirations, since she grew up surrounded by costumes in New Orleans. “[Carnival] influences me because it’s in the moment and it’s alive, it’s both aware and unaware,” Brothers said. “I know that sounds contradictory, but I always feel [inspired by] New Orleans, the whole idea of Carnival, and that kind of performing controlled chaos.”

Brothers fell in love with costume design when she started a work-study position in the University of New Orleans’s costume shop. Eventually she pursued costume design in graduate school in Los Angeles and as a freelancer in Kentucky.

However, Brothers said that she came to the College wanting a more permanent costume designer position. “I knew nothing about Williams,” she said. Brothers recalled being interviewed for a position at the College by Broadway lighting designer and former Chair of the Theatre Department Arden Fingerhut, who inspired her to join the College community. “I thought, ‘Oh my, here’s a place where a woman designer is actually in charge of a theatre department.’ That was just so exciting for me.”

In 1985, Brothers took the position at the College. Early on, she designed for three large productions  that spanned genre, time period, and scale. Brothers wasn’t intimidated by this undertaking. “Surprisingly, I said, ‘Oh, sure. I can do this,’” she explained.

To Brothers, costume design is a collaborative process involving historical research, problem solving, and ongoing input from a production’s creative team, directors, and actors. She added that costume design can take inspiration from art and nature. 

Brothers recalled the College’s 2018 production of Molière’s Tartuffe as one example of taking inspiration from unexpected sources. During the production’s time period of the 17th century, wealth was displayed through all-black clothing; however, this was unfavorable for a stage picture. To solve this problem, Brothers shaped the color palette off of the gem collection at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. “Adaptation is always part of the process,” she said. “It has to have some room to be organic and grow.”

Brothers has costume designed productions set in nearly every time period. “I think nowadays though, I’m actually much more interested in being fluid and not completely caught in a time period,” she said. “I like to allow [period costumes] to still have some of the current date’s aesthetics because I think they still creep in, even if you’re not trying to let them.”

After 38 years of designing at the College, Brothers said that she will miss the students most. Beyond her work as a designer, Brothers taught classes in the theatre department such as Costume Design, Performance, and Beyond. 

Mayel Levin ’25 was Brothers’s last student — she took an independent study with her last fall. “Deb’s teaching style is both nurturing and empowering,” Levin wrote in an email to the Record. “Her dedication to her students, passion for the field, and willingness to go above and beyond has left an indelible mark on my academic journey.”

Brothers said she learned from her students. “Sometimes [the classroom is] a mentor-mentee situation, but sometimes it becomes a peer-to-peer relationship,” she said. “When you come into the theater world, you’re coming into a collective.”

As she begins her retirement, Brothers looks forward to launching new creative projects, including an exhibit exploring the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

When asked to describe her time at the College in one phrase, Brothers laughed. “‘Too much winter,’” she joked. “Or how about, ‘mainly wonderful.’”