Our conversation with the legendary Costume Designer Jane Greenwood continues…
You’ve worked extensively on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theaters. Is there a difference between designing for a big Broadway house and a smaller theater? And you’ve also done a lot of film work. How do they differ?
Every venue has a slightly different atmosphere. But with film… people love to say that there’s a tremendous difference between designing for theater and film, and yes, it’s a different medium, with film you never look back and refine things. It’s in the can. But first and foremost you have the idea for the clothes… you’re a designer first. But with film, you can stop and fix it. You can go very close. The camera can start off with your shoe, and your bracelet, and your notebook, and your scarf and finally land on your face. That’s very interesting. So it’s very important what your shoe is, what your bracelet is. In the theater you’d see both of us having this interview in the same space. The lighting designer can push the audience to a certain extent to what to look at, but not nearly the way the camera does. And you’ve seen lots of movies where it’s really fascinating where the camera starts looking.
Oh, that’s interesting. The camera is choosing the entry way to the character.
You designed the movie Arthur. I’m sort of obsessed with that movie and have always loved the pink dress that John Giulgud gets for Liza Minnelli to go to the party. It’s just the most perfect costume.
It was wonderful working on that movie. John Gielgud was marvelous in all senses of the word, and a great friend. It really was very special. But we felt that Liza should have something that was sort of like Cinderella. Liza had had so many good experiences with Halston… so I said why don’t we go and see what he would suggest would be right for this moment. So we went up to that wonderful atelier he had on 5th Avenue at the time, and it was so interesting, you could see the roof of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and one eye kept wandering to look at that roof… I’ll never forget that! He came up with the idea of that pink dress and it was wonderful how he got into the spirit of what we were doing.
That seems like an interesting difference between theater and film. I assume that you do more designing of clothes in theater, whereas in film you might work with fashion designers more.
Yes, you work a lot with designers who make the fashion. That’s true to a certain extent. But if you’re doing a modern play, and you want to have a modern outlook, it serves you well to buy the clothes. I sometimes worry if you make the clothes in a modern play they all look like Simplicity patterns.
Is that any less satisfying than designing the actual garments?
Oh, no, it’s just as interesting. It’s a different way of getting the characters right.
That strikes me as remarkably lacking in ego to not have to design the clothes in order for them to express the right thing.
Haha, yes, well if it’s right for the character, that’s what you’re doing. Designers often do modern plays where they really don’t make anything. Something like “Sweat,” where they’re all modern, working class people in work clothes. It’s every bit as difficult as designing an 18th century play. Finding the right shirt, the right blue jeans and just how far they should be aged. That’s a design choice.
Are you constantly aware of current popular culture? Is your eye just always taking in details?
It is, it is! I used to love on Sundays to look at that Bill Cunningham page, because he got it so right, he would see the trends. Like last Saturday the sun had come out and I was coming through Union Square and all the young girls were out and it seemed that everybody was wearing a shirt without shoulders with a ruffle.
Does that stimulate thoughts about how that connects to what’s happening in the world?
Yes, sometimes. All clothes are of their time. But you can’t really tell what it is until a decade goes, and then you look back on it and say, oh yes, that makes sense! But it’s hard to see it as it’s happening.
Do you have a system for organizing ideas that come to you but don’t have a project they’re related to yet, or do you just trust that their in there?
Well, sometimes I trust they’re there, but I also have a terrible habit of keeping pictures out of the newspaper. I can’t resist it. Even though you can find anything online now, but I still do it, because it’s like what you’re saying, it’s like putting ideas away. For years I used to always say if we bought Brooks Brothers shirts, please get them in a box, because then I could use that box.
That was your storage system?
I’ll show you… I have dozens of these.
[At this point Jane brought out a tremendous box that was filled with amazing clippings- everything from a picture of an impeccably dressed Brooke Astor, whom Jane loves, to photographs of a street conflict happening somewhere in South America.]
So the boxes aren’t necessarily organized? They’re just accumulated…
Yes, accumulated. I try to organize them a bit. It’s not exactly WELL organized… look at this picture of Brook Astor… why didn’t somebody pull the collar up? It makes it seem like the dress is wearing her.
Have you ever hit a creative block on something?
Lots of times, to a certain extent. I find it hard to start to draw sometimes. I‘ll do anything but draw… I’ll do anything else. I’ll do more research, or I’ll read the play again. It’s a kind of a block. But once I get to it, it’s alright.
Oh, that resistance to dive in! That’s comforting to know that that exists at every level.
It never goes all the way away.
Are there projects that you dream of doing? Anything you haven’t done that you’d love to do?
I used to think that I’d like to design a really big, glitzy musical, but it hasn’t happened. I’ve done several musicals that have been really interesting. The last one was Bright Star that came to Broadway… charming piece written by Steve Martin. He wrote the wonderful bluegrass music. I thought it was really special. It didn’t really make it in the New York scene, however next fall it’s going to have a tour, so that’s encouraging.
Is there something that you need to do between projects to recharge?
I like to go away in the summer. I teach at Yale, so September through May it’s hard to go away, so I try to go to Europe as soon as Yale is over. Go to Europe and visit people and travel around. I need to have time to do things like that. I never stretch myself and go any further than Europe it seems. And I should go other places!
That seems like it would be very inspiring for your eye.
Yes, it is.
Is there anywhere that you’d like to go?
I’d like to go to Japan. Everything that comes from Japan is so well designed.
I’m curious about the process of working on a period piece and the balance between getting it right in terms of accuracy, and allowing your imagination to roam. Is there a balance or tension between those two things?
It’s not so much tension between them, and it depends on whether you have to be very thorough in accuracy or something where you can wander and use your imagination. I find I love really looking at the period and fantasizing how these people really lived in these clothes and how they were constructed and what it took to make them, and how different it was to the way we use and wear clothes today. I find all of that very interesting, and it’s interesting to put it on stage in a way that the truth of what that period was is as interesting as fantasy. Because they are pretty fantastic in and of themselves. You don’t have to do any more. The evolution of clothing is fascinating. But having said that, there are ways of turning things on their head and making them special. But when you look at things that have been done that way, they always look dated. They look like the period when they were done.
Like a 1980’s version of the Victorian era, for example.
Yes, and especially with the make up and hair. But you don’t realize it until you look back and see.
It’s like what you said before about not being able to understand what the clothes are reflecting until a decade passes.
You’ve worked so consistently, it seems like it’s been almost back to back. It reminds me of a quote that I heard from the French filmmaker Agnes Varda… she said “I had a world. I don’t think I had a career. I made films.”
Yes, I have had a world, a life. I joke with a friend and say sometimes I feel like I took the veil.
Like a nun?
Yes. It’s surprising how many things you miss. When the girls were growing up I’d sometimes miss events because I was at a dress rehearsal. Those decisions are hard, but if you’re committed you have to stay with it. But I have been very fortunate, my career, or my life, has been about designing.
I’d be curious to hear early lessons that you learned… any defining moment that was an essential or foundational lesson.
When I started, I was always anxious. And I was not confident. I was very anxious. I would always be very attentive to what everybody said about everything and I would sometimes change things when people said something else would be better, change this or do that. I would listen and sometimes think it was for the best, and sometimes it was not such a good idea. But I did find that when I became a little more successful, if that’s the word, I stopped being so nervous about what people thought about what I was doing. It took a long time. I’d wake up, well I still do, wake up at 3 in the morning and think I’ve got to change this or that. But in some ways that never goes away.
But you feel like early on you made choices based on other people’s opinions but in time you began to own your own process?
Exactly right. For instance, I remember when I was 50, I thought , I’ve lived half a century, I’m going to stop worrying so much about choices. I’ve got to get on with it!
Did your work change?
No! And I’m not sure I fully changed either, but at least I said I would! Haha!
You teach at Yale, does that feed your work?
It’s terrific! I love the students and I love going and being with all those young vigorous minds. And they do things that are jaw dropping sometimes. It really is great. It’s important that I’ve been able to keep designing and go along with the changes, because I’m in the middle of these bright people with new ideas. It’s been the other half of my life. I’ve been teaching at Yale for 41 years.
What about when you’ve worked with actors multiple times. Does that make your starting point different because you’re familiar with the actor’s instrument.
Yes, it’s nice to begin with someone you know. The dialogue is easier because you’ve had experiences together. But sometimes working with someone new can start a whole explosion in your head.
Communication is such a huge part of what you do. It’s almost like you have to tune into different dialects.
That’s right, and people have different needs. Some people want to talk about the character a great deal, some people want to talk about what their ideas are, or want to hear my ideas. Everybody is slightly different. But they need that security. Actors need security. When you take your own clothes off and let someone costume you, you’re trusting someone else. I find there’s a lot of conversation early on and I’ll have actors call and talk about things, wanting to talk about ideas, and as the process goes on and you get into the theater and clothes are there, the need disappears and you get fewer phone calls and such.
That’s generous to recognize that the level of vulnerability for an actor.
It’s tremendous. Then as they get confidence and things begin to work well, they can just take off and be great with what they’re doing.
It’s like the actors need to be surrounded by benevolent grown ups who allow them to play. But it’s play for everyone, right? It’s work but it’s play.
Yes, and investigating. Finding what works. You have to really read the play well before you start designing. And realize what those clothes have to do, and the journey they have to make. What the costume has to do for the character. I always think it’s interesting when you have the first fitting in a muslin and you think about what the costume has to do. How it’s going to make the journey throughout that play.
When you talk about what the journey is, are you referring to the story it has to tell.
Yes, how the actor has to go through a play and if they’re only in one costume, how does that costume tell how the character evolves? Do they have to have a cardigan so they can take it off? What are the things they need to sort of have… things to do that they’re going to need in the physical life of the play. Do they need pockets? There are all those details.
Thank you for sharing your insight and wonderful stories with us, Jane. We’re huge fans of yours and are honored that you took the time to speak with us!