The Battle of the Bolt

After four years of costume-making, they know us — my sister and me. When we march through the door of Fabricland in search of low-priced cloth for costumes, staff members take cover. The thing is, my sister and I differ in one certain, fundamental way. I am a perfectionist when it comes to costumes; my sister is a pragmatist. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times: “It’s on stage. No one will know the difference.” The phrase reduces me to frothing rage, every time.

I love costume. I love period costume in particular. Give me for preference a dress that looks like a ship under sail, like those jewelled walls of fabric worn by Queen Elizabeth I. These, in my view, are the perfect clothing for just about every occasion, except possibly tennis and white-water canoeing. Silly, isn’t it? I sometimes think that my interest in theatre is actually as shallow as a wish to play dress-up.

As for my sister, she takes the reasonable view that we should make our costumes as economically as possible. Of course, she has a point. But what can I do? I walk into Fabricland with a budget firmly in mind. And then I lose my grip. Instantly.

And so begins the annual Battle of the Bolt in full view of the astonished staff of Fabricland. Sometimes we pause for a moment in full spate, smile apologetically at the astonished woman at the cutting table, and say sweetly: “We’re sisters, you know,” as though that explained something, before resuming hostilities and our lamentable tug-of-war over the bolt at issue.

Costumes, depending on the play, can be a major production expense. Indeed, one of the factors we have to consider in choosing a play is the number of characters and costume-changes. We have been looking longingly at Pride and Prejudice, for instance, but have so far shied away from the costly line-up of Regency clothes and wigs. Oh well. One of these days.

Yet almost my favourite part of production is costume design, and that interest is mainly rooted in a love of colour — bold, solid colours that work with and against each other, sometimes with a shimmer or pattern woven into the cloth. You can almost paint a scene with costumes and, unlike your average watercolour, the painting is dynamic. It forms a new pattern on stage with every movement of the actors. I like to think that the brightness of its scenes has become one of the hallmarks of Linden House over the past three years.

I say costume “design,” but in fact the process is really closer to a treasure hunt. We go out and scavenge as much as we can for a particular period. Blithe Spirit, which we will stage in October 2010, was written in 1941, but we have chosen to situate it around 1930 instead. That was a period when the exuberance of the flapper era was beginning to yield to long, slim lines of the later decade. It was an elegant, yet playful time.

The treasure hunt for a play begins in the back of my closet, where I keep a few glorious dresses that, I must admit, my social life seldom lives up to. This year, the ghostly Elvira will float on to the stage in a filmy white dress embossed with creamy white blossoms. Thanks to the dollar store, which sells long strands of white and ivory “pearls,” we will also adorn her hair with a Cleopatra headdress à la 1920. Ahhhh!

Obviously, my closet has its limits, and the search continues online. It is amazing what — if you are recklessly willing to confide your credit card number to perfect strangers — you can acquire online. This year, I found a little straw hat from around 1930 with a big peach-coloured bow. The doctor’s wife will wear it in Act II when she calls on the Condomines.

Vintage hats are not cheap, however, so we obviously look first at Boutique Vivi (otherwise known as Value Village). It is surprising what good stuff people throw away. It is also surprising how, if you look carefully, you will find dresses very reminiscent of the 1930s, though made much later. However, it is always the colour that catches my eye first.

Speaking of colour, the fabric store is the next stop on the costume hunt and, as I always go with my sister, that is the scene of the annual Battle of the Bolt. Our long history puts me at a disadvantage right from the start. Claire met me first when I was just a week old and she was an intellectual five. I was not at my best just then, and clearly I didn’t impress her. I still don’t.

I do mean well. I start the annual sweep through the sale racks at Fabricland with a list in hand, determined to be sensible, and I am as pleased as anyone when I find a good stretch of fabric at half price. It all falls apart, however, within minutes. Let me loose in a field of fabric, and I am like a cat rolling in catnip.

On my way back from the sale table with two or three bargain bolts in my arms, I am forced to pass through a minefield of round tables piled high with cloth in every colour of the rainbow. I seize a bolt. I seize two, never looking at the price, and arrive guiltily at the cutting table, where Claire is pondering a piece of inexpensive broadcloth.

“Look at this! It’s perfect for Ruth in Act II,” I say defiantly.

“How much does it cost?” my sister asks suspiciously. She finds the price tag. “Look at this — $60 a metre! That’s ridiculous. Take it back!”

“Claire,” I say, willing to negotiate. “Look at the pattern! Look at the colour! This is just right!”

“Nonsense. No-one will see the pattern. It’s just a play.”

By this time, we are both raising our voices. I have very likely seized the bolt protectively, because she is trying to take it back to the display, and — as mentioned – the sales lady is looking alarmed, clearly wondering if she should call 911.

My sister always wins these battles. Last year, however, she made a fatal error. She successfully forced me to return a bolt of scarlet silk and to invest instead in boring broadcloth for the manufacture of a romantic nightgown. She had pointed out, accurately, that the costume was only on stage for about a minute and that the pattern called for six metres of fabric. It didn’t make sense to buy silk. I sullenly agreed and went home with the broadcloth. Then Claire left town for a month.

I called a taxi, headed right down to Fabricland and bought the silk. I do not regret it. The nightgown did its bit last year and is living happily now in the back of my closet.