Costume Design Inspires Fenwick Fellow

Posted: November 17, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Last week, Howard Kurtz, assistant professor in the Department of Theater, unveiled his latest design – a presentation on “The Costume Designer’s Search for Inspiration.”

Having been named one of the Fenwick Fellows for the 2004-05 academic year, Kurtz used his experiences designing for the stage to boost the library’s collection and help future theater students find their own sources for inspiration.

“Costume design is storytelling,” said Kurtz, a Helen Hayes Award-winning costume designer. “The ultimate goal of a costume designer is to create believable characters that the audience can identify with through their clothing.”

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz
Creative Services photo

Kurtz’s research focused on the ways that a costume designer searches for inspiration in today’s world of new and emerging technologies, such as the Internet. He used paper texts in the library to research and design costumes while his student research assistant, Charity Beth Long, used modern technology. The two then analyzed the different modes of research, compared their strengths and weaknesses and selected the most effective methodology useful for the contemporary classroom.

Kurtz and Long developed a resource guide, “The Costume Designer’s Guide to Historical Resources,” that is now available at the Fenwick Library. The two also ordered more than 50 books on costume design and fashion that will be added to the library’s collection.

In his presentation, Kurtz discussed the ways that designers begin their work on a new production. The designer must take into account all kinds of details laid out in a script before beginning a design. Factors such as the geographical period, historical era, time of day, season and weather, as well as the character’s social status, age and occupation, are all important to the clothing he or she would wear.

Kurtz, who has done design work with numerous theaters in the area such as the Kennedy Center, Metrostage and Olney Theatre Center, gets his inspiration by doing “lots of research, research, research.” He uses magazines, advertisements, paintings, books and movies as sources of whatever time period he is looking at.

“There are two kinds of research for the costume designer—factual and evocative.” The second is more elusive. “Evocative research involves seeking stimuli for creative interpretation. The inspiration for these stimuli may come from many sources such as music, art, literature, or even the language of the play itself.”

Another piece of advice Kurtz had for designers was to collaborate with the director. “It is important to understand the director’s vision before beginning to design,” he says.

Kurtz knows all about that, for one of his biggest challenges as a designer came when he was hired by Arena Stage to do a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He had prepared ideas for the play without consulting the director, and realized later that the director was setting the play in 1970, in Baltimore, in snow, instead of 1947 New Orleans, the traditional setting for the play.

“That was an eye-opening experience for me, because that was when I learned that the director was the first person to listen to,” he said.

The Fenwick Fellowship is awarded annually to instructional faculty members to pursue a research project that utilizes the libraries’ resources and advances knowledge in the field. The award includes a research office in Fenwick Library and an award of $1,750 to support the research.

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