Mason Professor Brings History to Costume Design

Posted: March 9, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Marie Antoinette costume
Washington socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post dressed as Marie Antoinette in the 1920s. The costume is part of a new exhibition curated by Mason theater professor Howard Kurtz.
Photo courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

By Catherine Ferraro

Just as an actor immerses himself in his character when preparing for a role, a costume designer must also consider every aspect of the character for whom he designs a costume.

In a sense, a successful costume designer operates as a historian — researching the socioeconomic structure of a society, the customs relating to dress, the art of the period and the technology available for the production of both fabrics and clothing.

No one understands this better than Howard Kurtz, who first became enchanted by costumes in third grade.

“Even at a young age, I was very taken by what was happening behind the stage,” says Kurtz, associate professor in Mason’s Department of Theater.

“I knew there was more to a costume than just the clothes themselves, and as I got older and gained more experience in the field, I realized that a costume designer creates pieces of art that, although subtle, say so much about the person wearing them.”

Setting the Stage

With intentions of becoming an actor when he went off to college, Kurtz soon realized that acting and designing costumes involved the same task of defining a character.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz
Creative Services photo

His last two years as an undergraduate were spent in the costume area. He had his first experience actually working with costumes for the production of “The Sound of Music.” During this time, he became keenly aware that understanding characters and their clothing involved examining factors such as geographical period, historical era, time of day, season and weather, as well as the character’s social status, age and occupation.

Drawn to productions set in the late 19th- and early 20th-century Victorian era, Kurtz notes, “If I wasn’t working in the theater, I would without a doubt be a historian. I love to do research, and I have a lot of questions.”

Kurtz went on to receive a double master’s degree in costume design and construction. He continued to build upon his knowledge of costume design and learned skills necessary for clothing construction, designing sets and directing productions.

Mason Debut

Kurtz began his professional career in New York City working on costume construction, stage makeup, hair arrangement and related tasks for Broadway shows and Hollywood movies such as “Into the Woods,” “Cabaret,” “Prince of Tides” and “Ghost.”

In 1993, after working on productions at the Juilliard School in New York and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., Kurtz joined Mason as a costume designer for the Center for the Arts.

At Mason, Kurtz works on productions for the GMU Players, a faculty-directed student organization and producing unit of the Department of Theater; and Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s professional theater company in residence. He also teaches courses in costume design, clothing construction and makeup.

As the production manager for the GMU Players, Kurtz works with the students to make sure the productions run smoothly.

“I hope to bring to the students the necessary skills and steps needed for a production, such as writing a rehearsal report, working within a budget and other responsibilities that are expected of them,” says Kurtz.

As a guest designer for TFA, Kurtz has worked on “Dream of a Common Language,” for which he received a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Costume Design, and “Two-Bit Taj Mahal,” among other productions.

Defined by Fashion

When Kurtz is not designing costumes or teaching, he serves as the costumes and textiles curator for the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. Hillwood is the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who lived from 1887 to 1973.

Mrs. Post in an Indian-theme costume
Post dressed in an Indian-theme costume in the 1920s.
Photo courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

Post was heir to the Post cereal fortune and created a place for herself in American history as one of America’s first businesswomen and an avid art collector, philanthropist and socialite.

The museum opened to the public in 1977 and has been known primarily for its collection of Russian imperial art and French decorative art. But it is also home to Post’s collection of 175 dresses and accessories, as well as other textiles.

When Kurtz came aboard 10 years ago, he began researching and working with the dress collection and discovered that Post had amassed clothing covering 99 years of fashion, beginning with her mother’s wedding dress from 1874.

Eager to showcase Post, “the woman,” Kurtz developed an exhibition titled “An Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s.” The exhibition will run from March 14 to July 13 and will feature four elaborate costumes and complete accessories of the type that were worn by society women at charity balls during the Roaring ’20s.

The fancy dress balls were usually inspired by a theme, with the costumes designed according to four categories: historical, literary, allegorical and exotic or folk characters.

“This exhibition will be the first in the museum’s history to focus on the woman and not the collections,” says Kurtz. “The research I conducted in preparation will help the public understand the history behind these costumes balls and also how society lived in the 1920s.”

Mrs. Post in a
Another Post costume from the Hillwood collection is referred to as “starry night.”
Photo courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

In only eight weeks, Kurtz prepared for the exhibition by conducting research and traveling to Post’s homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and New York City; the New York Historical Society; and the Bentley Historical Library in Michigan. He was able to acquire newspapers, pictures and documents from the time in which Post lived.

Education Outside the Classroom

Kurtz encourages his students to use the museum as a tool to help them understand how society and theater came together in the 1920s; he feels that instead of conducting research on the Internet or by reading books, the best information may come from seeing the real thing.

“Theater today would be very different if it wasn’t for the wealthy society people who had many of their clothes made in costumes shops,” says Kurtz. “Theater did not come up with the concept of costume shops — wealthy people did, and the theater borrowed from that.”

He adds, “The most important things I try to teach my students are to never take a costume at face value and that a good costume designer reads the newspaper. It’s not about seeing a picture; it’s about understanding the social aspect of the time period so they can better understand the individual and the meaning of the clothes they wear.”

In addition to his work at the museum, Kurtz serves as artistic associate at Olney Theater Center in Maryland and frequently directs productions for the Little Theater of Alexandria.

For more information on the exhibit, “An Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s,” see the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens web site.

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