Mr. Darcy, the suave and mysterious hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is the very definition of 19th century class. His tall black boots, high waisted trousers and black tailcoat compliment his brooding personality, just as the flowing empire waisted gowns worn by heroine Elizabeth Bennet reflect her refined intelligence and blossoming sexuality. Each costume in Book-It Repertory Theater’s production of this Jane Austen classic speaks volumes about the characters, and is as integral to the audience’s experience as the script, the set, the music, and the actors themselves.
These classic costumes were designed and built for Book-It’s Pride and Prejudice by costume designer Jocelyne Fowler, who also dresses the actors for Seattle Shakespeare Company and various other projects in Washington State. After stopping in my tracks every time I spotted a Pride and Prejudice poster and drooling over the gorgeous costumes, I tracked Fowler down to find out what was so riveting about these particular outfits.
The costumes for Pride and Prejudice make me think of Christmas carols and snowy boulevards, why is that?
Well, the Regency Era [the period from 1811-1820 when the United Kingdom was ruled by the Prince of Wales, and during which Pride and Prejudice was published] falls really close to the Victorian Era and when the Dickens novels were written, and those clothes are often associated with Christmas.
The dresses on the women and pants worn by the men look really constricting in places, are they uncomfortable for the actors to wear all evening?
Actually, these are among the least uncomfortable period costumes of all! There is very little layering, and we don’t have the women wear corsets under the dress but build special undergarments with a strong push-up bra so their breasts are hoisted up above the empire waists. It doesn’t restrict the actors’ breathing and posture. But the men’s pants are tight! I don’t make them as tight as a lot of costumes for this period, sometimes men have to wear dance belts [a genital-supporting undergarment worn my male dancers under tights] but I was nice this time!
You seem really familiar and comfortable working with clothing from this period. Do you have a lot of experience with this stuff? What’s your favorite period?
I love period costumes, and this is one of my favorite eras to work with. Period shows are easier [than modern productions] because you have the basis of the look, so you do research and get photos and match them up with the characters. Period shows also give the freedom to inform the characters a lot more through costume, because you can flush out a character more through period clothing than with modern outfits.
So how do you do it?
I do renderings of the costumes and then show the director to see if we’re going in the same direction. Sometimes they want me to develop a different look, and sometimes the actors have very certain ideas of how they want their characters to look. I initially had Mr. Bennet in a frock coat [a longish coat cut evenly around the mid-thigh area] but [actor Brian Thompson] has played Mr. Bennet many times and was used to wearing a tailcoat, so I changed it. With Pride and Prejudice I built a lot of things from scratch and designs change as I make the costumes so I don’t really use patterns or follow directions.
I think you’re being really humble about this. I can’t sew a straight seam on a handkerchief and you make these costumes without following pre-set directions?!
Ha! Well, there is an instinct to it, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started acting in middle school and when I got into college at the UW I took a History of Costume and decided that this was what I wanted to do. I interned in wardrobe, where you learn to dress the actors and do costume changes and make small repairs and adjustments, and from there I learned about design and construction. I’m really lucky to be able to do what I do, and I love it.
Pride and Prejudice runs through December 28 at Book-It Repertory Theatre.
Production photos by for Book-It by Chris Bennion.