Designer Spotlight: Gabriel Berry

SEP 12, 2012

The Queen of Couture Liana Stillman interviews Marie Antoinette costume designer Gabriel Berry

Liana Stillman: Marie Antoinette is an eighteenth-century fashion icon, and we see her style echoed by modern designers like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. What about Marie is attractive to the fashion and costume worlds?

Gabriel Berry: She was rich, she was powerful, and early in her career she was young and unsupervised and had the power to create fashion. And she went for it. She was continuously playing with how she presented herself and she was outrageous and fearless in the sort of things she tried out. I think a lot of her whimsy is attractive to us today, and the impracticality. Life is so earnest now, clothes are so earnest now; just the very fact that you’d have to raise an archway to get your hair into a room makes for a good story.

What type of research have you done to prepare for Marie Antoinette? What’s particularly exciting about the dress of this historical period?

It’s extreme. Earlier in her reign she had the widest panniers we’ve ever seen. You’ve got dresses going out at the side and you have the tallest headdresses. I went into all sorts of resources, but I do a lot of fashion sampling at the same time. I’m looking at designer collections at the same time that I’m looking at street fashion and the history of costume. There’s so much information out there about her wardrobe and her era. From the beginning of her reign until the end there are lot of changes that get made. By the time she’s beheaded you have a whole fashion that is started by the clothing of the sans-culottes, the people who were the revolutionaries, and you have hairstyles called á la guillotine, which is when women and men chopped all their hair off, and had short punky hairdos. The cynicism of that is sort of startling, but they were fairly cute haircuts.

You mentioned looking at designer collections, are there any in particular that have inspired you for this?

A lot of John Galliano’s stuff, a lot of Dior from two to four years ago. There’s always Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. I’ve been looking at Yohji Yamamoto a lot for menswear.

Spring 2009 Christian Dior Couture, Myf Shepherd.

Spring 2009 Christian Dior Couture, Myf Shepherd.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress, 1783.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress, 1783.

John Galliano for Christian Dior 2000

John Galliano for Christian Dior 2000

Is your vision for the costumes for Marie Antoinette purely period, or will we find elements from other periods as well?

I never do anything all in period. We’re not historians, it’s not a museum, it’s a theater piece. No one does period completely faithfully, no one has the money, nobody has the time, nobody has the actors that can wear the clothing, and I think it’s sort of silly to pretend that’s what you’re doing. I’m always fully aware of what century I’m in, what day I’m in, what year I’m in. It’s 2012 and that’s going to be reflected somehow in what I’m doing.

Could you talk a little more about the wigs? How else will you collaborate with the hair and makeup artists?

The first scene, as David has written it, calls for the wigs to be three feet high. That’s rather high. They weren’t really that high in the period that they were actually being worn so there’s a theatrical effect that he wants to have with the wigs. It became obvious to me that those wigs could certainly not be wigs: they had to be sculptures because they have to weigh nothing. So, one of the first things I knew going into this project was that we were going to need a sculptor to make those wigs.

Are there any particular challenges that come with creating costumes for a show like this? It’s a new play, and toes the line between historical and modern, as well as comedy and tragedy.

There are certainly technical issues with how things are going to get on and off stage, how wigs are going to be attached, how big the skirts are going to be, how the actors will change. Most everything needs to happen quickly, and we’re moving through time very quickly, so how can you get actors from one costume into another? We’re actually dressing Marie onstage, pretty much, in order to keep everything moving. That always makes for an interesting effect. But the question is: how are we getting the clothes on stage? There are a lot of technical things in this that are challenging.

How did you get interested in designing costumes? Do you have any advice for aspiring costume designers?

I liked looking at pictures of old costumes. My path was very circuitous and not very obvious. I just like old clothes. I like textiles, I like fabrics, and I liked playing dress-up. I guess I was able to incorporate those things into a career. I like history and could have been a librarian in another life. I think that costume design always involves a lot of research. Each show has its own needs and it’s exciting to go from universe to universe. As for young costume designers, the world of design is changing with so much of it being digital and online and repurposed. I think the thing is to always follow your heart and do what makes you happy.

Liana Stillman is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./ Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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