It’s a first-world problem.
There’s a room in Penn State’s Academic Activities Building that is lined from floor to ceiling with gorgeous clothes, a collection of skirts, shirts and hats that would make even the most vivacious of fashion plates green with envy — and that color isn’t even in season yet.
As is life, there are choices to be made from this embarrassment of riches, decisions about color palettes, textures and patterns that beg to go procrastinated, but in the face of a cast of 24 ensemble players, simply cannot.
If you’re not of the theater, it’s difficult to grasp the true challenge that’s at stake here.
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It’s easier to think of it as the Lifetime original movie version of the mini-drama that plays out in front of the bathroom mirror each morning before work, a heightened — some might even say grossly exaggerated — version of the eternal struggle between the image you’re trying to present to the world and the realities of whatever is hanging in the closet.
You’re a fashion designer, but we’re also doing so much more.
Alex Hagman, costume designer
Alex Hagman is working on a much larger scale than the bathroom mirror. She is the costume designer for the Penn State School of Theatre’s production of “Hair,” a musical set against the backdrop of hippies and the Vietnam War that opens for previews on Tuesday.
Hagman, a senior, was responsible for designing 50 different looks for a cast of two dozen actors.
“You’re a fashion designer, but we’re also doing so much more,” Hagman said.
It would be easy to reduce what she does to window dressing for mannequins who have monologues, but Hagman isn’t just outfitting her performers in the latest from the fall line.
Beyond re-creating the textures of the era, Hagman was curating the visual history of each individual character.
“The way they wear their clothing is about telling the audience who they are before they even open their mouths,” Hagman said.
Sometimes it’s more straightforward than others. A policeman is a policeman — but the “hippie” label fits more than one jar.
Hagman worked with director Emmy Frank to develop the look of their bohemian buddies. Both wanted to achieve a feel that was a little less polished than they had seen in other productions of “Hair.”
“We’re looking at dirty, grungy hippies,” Hagman said.
Frank, who is also a graduate student at Penn State, said that they wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional hippie ensemble, the flower child by way of Abercrombie and Fitch design encompassed by a pair of jeans with half a dozen or so strategically placed tears.
She and Hagman spent a lot of time talking about the characters, thinking generally about the time period before zeroing in on the specific accouterments.
“It required massive amounts of research,” Frank said.
Hagman’s process begins with reading the script, first for pleasure, again to highlight any notations regarding wardrobe and finally with an eye toward breaking down each role.
She assembles character boards, collections of inspiration that Hagman eventually turns into full-fledged renderings.
While much of the clothing that eventually finds its way onto an actor is pulled from the pre-existing costume stock, Hagman does shop as necessary and has even sewn certain pieces together from scratch.
It’s a fluid, collaborative process, one that is susceptible to the inevitable realities of bringing any design from paper onto the canvas of the theater — not to mention the body of an actor.
These aren’t models after all, but artists who have an equal investment in the integrity of the inner lives of their character. Wardrobe fittings are as much about making sure that the costumes fit the role as it is the clothes fitting the actor.
“Costume is very much about changing a person,” Hagman said.