Why is costume important in drama

Dressmasters and the stuff that great dramas are made of

The fabric glides gently through your fingers. The yellow silk dress that Maria Köstlinger wore in Peter Turrini's “Together is Alzheimer's more beautiful” on the stage of the Kammerspiele with her irrepressible joy of playing and stage presence now hangs strangely without energy on a doll in the tailor's shop in the Josefstadt. The costume exudes a touch of magic even without its charismatic wearer. Three braids on feathers, five colorful petticoats, a hem width of eight meters in total, sparkling embroidery and a mesh top embroidered with rhinestones. Everyday use looks different. But the impression is wrong. This dress can take a lot. Garment master Anita Schmalenberg estimates that around 90 hours of working time have been invested.

Together with her colleague Marisa Massler, she realized the costumes for the production in autumn. Schmalenberg is women's clothing, Massler specializing in men's clothing. The process takes six to eight weeks until the finished costume makes its grand entrance on stage. The seven in-house tailors and two dressmakers basically make everything themselves. Only the shoes are bought externally. In the theater in der Josefstadt, productions are usually played more often, usually a few dozen times. The yellow silk dress was not allowed to shine so often due to Covid-19 in "Together Alzheimer's is more beautiful".

What must such a piece of clothing be able to and withstand? “We are involved from the start of production. The teams work differently: Sometimes there are only vague ideas, sometimes detailed sketches, ”says Schmalenberg. She spreads out the figurines for "Together Alzheimer's is more beautiful" on a wide work table. In this case, the templates from costume designer Elisabeth Strauss were very precise.

Evening dress has to endure drama 50 times

The next step involves choosing the fabrics for a costume. “This is very important in the theater, because the materials are subject to much more stress than everyday clothing,” says Massler. “During a performance, silk evening dresses are completely sweaty, dirty or bloody - and that happens 50 times in one season. And there is also a drama to be experienced. No normal evening dress can hold up, ”adds Schmalenberg. The possibility of cleaning is therefore always included in the planning.

Schmalenberg and Massler lead into a 15 square meter room that adjoins the sewing workshop. It is a room full of treasures, filled to the ceiling with fabrics of all materials, colors and many decades. Very old fabrics are also in stock, lace from the turn of the century and woolen fabrics from the 30s and 40s. “That just looks historically correct. The fabrics are heavier, the thread count is higher: You can still dress such an old woolen fabric, that is, bring in a shape, ”says Massler.

Merciless stage lighting

Some old tailors' shops were bought for the archive. Many colors and structures are no longer available today. Modern, thinner fabrics move differently on the body. This can of course be desired to give the piece a modern touch. The dressmakers also work with the latest materials as required. This includes, for example, filter foam from the automotive industry for molding work or - when things get really tough on the stage - extreme textiles that are otherwise only used for outdoor products.

"Synthetics are more of a horror on stage."

Dressmaker Schmalenberg from the theater in der Josefstadt

“What we don't have in stock, we try to order locally. There are still great linen and woolen fabrics in Austria. Silks tend to come from Italy, Great Britain is strong with special wool fabrics, ”says Massler. The theater in der Josefstadt mainly uses natural materials. “Synthetics are more of a horror on stage. In the stage lighting you can see the difference even more clearly in terms of color and surface, ”says Schmalenberg.

The cut tells the story

The choice of material is therefore always a matter of weighing up: What looks good? What stands up to the demands on the stage? The look is also important in terms of processing - especially in a small theater, says Schmalenberg: "Our stages are very small, especially in the Kammerspiele the audience is very close." That means it has to be finely sewn. And the cut and the workmanship tell the story, says Schmalenberg: “Every step of the way, you should think about who is wearing the garment. A beggar, for example, works differently than an aristocrat. "

"It is also part of our job to read into the time."

Dressmaker Massler from the theater in der Josefstadt

"It is also part of our job to read into the time and research the cuts," says Massler. Most recently, the historical uniforms at Joseph Roth's “Radetzkymarsch” required meticulousness so that the ranks and the cuts of the uniforms were correct.

The expertise of the garment masters starts with the training. Because women's and men's tailoring are actually two different professions, as they say. “The traditional processing is completely different. It is true that it overlaps more and more, but it is still very specialized in the theater, ”says Massler.

Lively costumes

A central step is the collaboration with the actors. “We try to get as much information as possible from the samples beforehand. In our experience, drama is even more evolving during rehearsals than in opera, ”says Schmalenberg. It is not uncommon for the role to be designed to change and that has an impact on the item of clothing.

Schmalenberg describes the symbiosis of actors: in and garment using the yellow silk dress. She points to the side: “We have incorporated a zipper on the side that can be opened quickly from the bottom up. Maria Köstlinger pulls the dress over her head on stage and throws it away from her. ”For this reason, a modern mesh fabric was chosen for the upper area, which is very elastic and allows all movements without tearing. "Fortunately, Maria Köstlinger is also very skilled," adds Schmalenberg and laughs.

Here, too, the clothing tells the story: It is a dance dress from the 1970s. In her role as an aged woman, Köstlinger puts on her ball gown from her youth again. The fit should therefore not be right at all, but rather sit a little loosely. A jacket was made for her play partner Johannes Krisch. A small version of the costume was sewn for a child actor.

Last appearance as a rehearsal costume

At the end of a production, the magic is over and the costumes are added to the fund, which is located in the vicinity of the theater. Schmalenberg explains: “In the best case scenario, they will be recycled for other productions if it fits. Some items of clothing also make a final appearance as a rehearsal costume. But that's okay too, in terms of sustainability. "

All information from the theater in der Josefstadt

Series: The people behind the scenes of the theater

Assistant director: nerve center and control center of the theater apparatus

Equipment: An artistic craft that arouses emotions

Costume designer: a tailor-made world far away from everyday life

Dramaturgy: Anything but boring

Series: The people behind the scenes