A Peek at the Costumes of “Jefferson’s Garden”

Hello, folks!  Today’s post is a little different, but still on topic I hope.  You see, last week I signed up for an event on Instagram.

Well, to give credit where it’s due, my sister was the one who told me about the event.  She sent me a message that more-or-less said “You don’t have anything to do so you should sign up for this.”  Normally I would have rolled my eyes and ignored her.  But I remembered that, actually, I don’t have anything to do most evenings, so I clicked the attachment that took me to IGDC.  It was an event that offered the opportunity to meet the costume designer for a new play at Ford’s Theatre.  What can I say?  My sister knows me.  I signed up immediately.

Screenshot of the Ford’s Theatre page for the show

The play is called “Jefferson’s Garden” – the titular character being Thomas Jefferson.  All I knew about the play ahead of time was that 1) it was written by a woman (the play is part of the Women’s Voices series at the theatre) and 2) it was historical fiction that followed original characters as they interacted with real historical figures (like old TJ).  I did get to see the play, but that was after the main event (for me, at least).

First, the costumes!  We started out the evening listening to the costume designer herself, Ivania Stack, discuss her design process for a few minutes.  If you’re like me, you could listen to this sort of stuff all day long.  Unfortunately, we only had 30 minutes for the whole meeting.  So I’ll give you the key points I gathered.  There’s also a short recorded interview you can watch here.

There are 9 actors (4 female, 5 male) in the play, and they are all on stage during the entire show.  If they are not participating in the current scene, they are sitting/standing on the edges of the stage (in full view), part of the “Greek chorus,” or getting dressed for the next scene.  Yep, they change costumes right on stage.  It probably saves a lot of time, since each actor has to play multiple characters throughout the night.  There is a clothing rack on each side of the stage, and there are big wooden crates filled with more clothing.  The crates conveniently double as props.

They’re not getting naked, though.  Each actor wears a base layer made of muted colored linen – a shirt and cropped pants for most of them, but one does wear a blue linen jumpsuit that I kind of want for myself.  They then don outerwear or accessories for each character they play.  One of them simply puts on a white cap and a black shawl over her base culottes and shirt and becomes a Quaker grandmother.  Stack mentioned that she worked with the actors during rehearsals to figure out what accessories, and how many accessories, to wear for each character.

The really unique details are in the costumes for the real historical figures.  Stack said that during the design process, she thought about how much of what we know about people like Thomas Jefferson comes from paintings and written documents – letters, books, articles, maybe even the Declaration of Independence itself.  All that is really left behind is paper.  And thus, the idea to make paper costumes was born!  An interesting concept, no?

The material she ended up using was Tyvek, a durable plastic sheeting material that I’m sure you’ve seen before.  They even sell it on fabric.com (psst I hear it’s great for windbreakers, tote bags, and costumes).  It’s synthetic, but has a lot of paper-like qualities.  It has a low sheen, for one, and it crinkles and creases with use.  Apparently it also finger presses pretty well and can handle a glue gun and a light iron.  As you can imagine, the needle leaves holes in the tyvek, so Stack mentioned that they avoided having to unpick.   I did see some areas of unpicking around a zipper, but honestly, no one in the audience would ever see it.  I also imagine it’s probably necessary to adjust a costume at least once with fittings, not to mention for future use.

Stack said that another difficulty for the drapers was getting the garments in the machine in the later stages of construction.  Tyvek has a lot of body, so the end result is a very sculptural piece that could probably stand on its own.  She did note that the material softened with use and also became less noisy the more it was worn and crinkled.

Oh and the tyvek is custom printed!  Stack used historical motifs and patterns and had them printed onto huge sheets.  Everything is printed: the buttons on the coats, the flowers and stripes on the dresses, even the trims on the vests.  The material seems to take the pigment well, as the colors look very vibrant.  This is probably the trade-off.  I mean, I can imagine all of the problems that using tyvek probably creates for a costume maker: broken needles, frustration as you try to jam a 3D sculpture under your presser foot, and possibly paper cuts.  But the ability to simply print on time-consuming details like button holes and embroidery?  Priceless.

The wigs were also sculpted from paper!  White raffia paper, to be exact.  Apparently the stage lights washed out the texture of the material, so they went back and added some dimension with what looks like gray colored paint.

After a few more photo opportunities, the event quickly wrapped up.  I’ll admit, one of the immediate draws to this meet up was getting a chance to visit Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated.  His booth is visible to the right of the stage, and there is a small museum on the lower level all about the president.  We had a dinner break before returning to watch the show.  If you you know the story of Thomas Jefferson, a man who lived a life full of hypocrisy and contradictions, then you know the gist of the plot.

It was interesting to see the costumes in action after looking at them up close.  From where I sat, I could see that the garments held their shapes.  The coats the men wore stood away from their bodies near the hems.  The gowns were designed to have big, poofy skirts, so the tyvek actually seemed to lend itself well to creating this effect.  The actors’ movements also appeared natural and unrestricted by the paper-like garments.  The show is running through February 8th, if you are in the Washington, D.C. area and want to check it out yourself!

Finally, I leave you with the only shot I managed to take of the dress I wore that night, almost fully obstructed by my coat and scarf.  I made this dress back in August, and still have not managed to get decent photos of it.  If I were more outgoing I’d have asked one of the many photographers at the event to snap a few pics of me inside the theater.  Ah well, I guess I’ll just coerce my sister to get some shots this weekend because embroidered mesh deserves a blog post!







  1. Vesna

    Oh, embroidered mesh DOES deserves it’s own blog post – I would love to see more of that dress!
    It sounds like a very interesting evening, who wouldn’t love to go behind the stage on a historical show! The idea of printing details like buttons and trims directly on fabric is so clever, now I kinda want to implement it in my sewing 😀 Not really print, but maybe embroider? Hmm..

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      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it! An embroidered button would be a cool detail, and I know you love embroidery – I keep seeing your little pocket fox on Pinterest!
      I kind of want to try sewing with tyvek just for the fun of it – maybe something easy like a shopping bag?

  2. Chloe

    Hi Henna, I’ve been saving this post to read when I had time to absorb everything! I love seeing costumes, especially for live performance, that are made in interesting new ways (disclaimer – said costuming is my day job, I’m always looking for new techniques that we can use). A very cool idea on it’s own, but definitely a great idea for this show. I imagine that the designing and printing would have been quite something to set up, but no doubt a time saver in the end – embroidery, trim, buttons & buttonholes take time and therefor money to produce. And the end result look really effective. Thanks so much for sharing!

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      Ah that’s so cool that you are a costumer! Since I only sew for myself, it was all quite new to me. It’s so interesting to learn about the different factors to consider when making clothing for stage – like lighting and the amount of noise the fabric makes (apparently tyvek is prone to rustling haha). I’m glad you enjoyed seeing this!

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