Podculture: The fabric of Northwestern Theater

Chiara Kim, Reporter



From sourcing clothes to sewing, the costume design process for Northwestern theatre productions involves meticulous work and collaboration. On this episode of Podculture, The Daily dives into the world of costume design at Northwestern. 

CHIARA KIM: From stitching giant trout costumes to making trips to local thrift stores, costume designers sew together the fabric of Northwestern student productions.

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CHIARA KIM: A character’s costume tells the audience who they are. They bring the productions to life. But how do they get made? 


CHIARA KIM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Chiara Kim. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond. In this episode, student costume designers take us through their process — from the first readthrough to the main stage. 

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: Now that I’m in-person, I get to actually really get my hands on things, try new things I’ve never done before. Like, in the fall, I made trout costumes, like full, huge trout costumes.

CHIARA KIM: That’s McCormick sophomore Jasmin Ali-Diaz. She said it was pretty easy for her to take on costume designing roles at Northwestern her freshman year. Since then, she’s done costume design for many productions, including The Dolphin Show, the nation’s largest student-produced musical. Communication freshman Sophie Schaeffer also found it easy to get involved in design at NU.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I first signed on as an assistant designer, and then I worked my way up to being a lead designer for shows.

CHIARA KIM: The process for designing costumes includes a lot of attention to detail and an understanding of theatre as an art. They start by reading through the script — 

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER:  — Once for the story, once to nail down each character. And then I read it again to track when each costume change is.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: Then I kind of come up with some of my own preliminary ideas. I consume a lot of costume design things. I just really keep track of fashion, designer shows and also just costume design from musicals I really enjoy.

CHIARA KIM: After this initial brainstorming, the designers check in with the director or producer of the show.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I always try to serve my director and whatever their vision is. I always enjoy the initial reading with the director because it really gives a guiding lens for where all the design work will be to just ensure that all the design work meshes.

CHIARA KIM: Depending on the show’s needs, designers either source their costumes from stores or construct the pieces themselves. Either way, they create a piece list: a spreadsheet that includes details about every costume in a production.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I send out the piece list to the entire team, and then I harass the team to “please fill out the piece list if you have anything that you would like to let me borrow.” 

CHIARA KIM: If possible, they try to find said pieces at thrift stores. 

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: If there’s still things I need to get that I can’t find thrifting, either I reconsider if I really need it, or I buy it new from Amazon.

CHIARA KIM: Certain pieces, however, need to be constructed from scratch.

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CHIARA KIM: Jasmin worked on costume design on “The Lightning Thief” this winter. For the character Grover, who is half-man half-goat, they needed to create furry legs.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: When the day began, I had never made pants before. I had no idea how to make pants, and by the end of the day, I made a pair of pants. So it’s just like trying to figure things out. It kind of pays to be flexible as a costume designer.

CHIARA KIM: Jasmin said she doesn’t have a set space for doing her work — she’s made costumes everywhere from the second floor of Norris University Center to the Kresge Hall sculpture room. They work wherever’s convenient and try to avoid bothering their roommate by using their loud sewing machine at odd hours. 

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I worked in a common room of Allison, and I was at one of those high tables. The table is so high I had to be standing up, like not even, I was like half-sitting in the chair. I had to stick my whole leg to get to the actual pedal for the sewing machine, which was quite a time.

CHIARA KIM: Jasmin said the time it takes for the costume process — from petitioning to be on the design team to putting final touches on the costumes — can take anywhere from three weeks to a whole quarter, depending on the show. One consideration, she said, is how to pay for the costumes.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: A lot of times when you’re working on student theatre, you’re kind of forced to front money and then have to be reimbursed later. Unfortunately, I can’t really do that a lot because that’s just not the financial situation I’m in.

CHIARA KIM: Jasmin then has to wait for a check advance or for the purchase order to process through the Student Organization Finance Office. It can delay design production for the whole show. 

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: With certain shows, even though I already had my designs done for weeks, I only had a handful of weeks to actually put everything together.

CHIARA KIM: While it’s not as heavy a commitment as being a cast member, costume design isn’t low-commitment, either. Sophie said sourcing, like thrifting at Chicago area thrift store Village Discount Outlet, usually takes a few days. Beyond the costume fittings during tech week and dress rehearsals, design teams often meet weekly to make sure everyone is on the same page.  

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I think that touching base and making sure that everybody is kind of operating within the same vision is super important. There’s just a constant line of communication, constant updates usually like letting your producer know when you’ve sourced things, how much of the budget you’re spending. It’s a very collaborative process.

CHIARA KIM: Many student productions have both designers and design assistants. According to Sophie, designers and assistants do somewhat similar work, and they all collaborate to achieve their goals. 

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: For the most part, assistants do still have a fair amount of creative freedom. They’re always welcome to come up with extra ideas, but the lead designers generally take on more of the broader concepts. 

CHIARA KIM: Communication Sophomore Grace Kulas, who was an assistant costume designer on The Dolphin Show, added that the amount of work designers have to do depends on the nature of the production. The Dolphin Show required three assistants and a draper, or someone who sews costumes.

GRACE KULAS: It depends on how many people you have, what you have access to. I don’t personally have a sewing machine. I would have to borrow one. Making stuff and sewing typically gets done by yourself just because it’s annoying to have to move around fabric between people.

CHIARA KIM: Grace usually focuses more on scenic design — she’s been a set designer for multiple production companies. But she’s learned a lot from costuming, both in her Introduction to Costume Design class and for student productions. 

GRACE KULAS: I really enjoyed my classes, getting to do my renderings and watercolor designs and all of that. I really enjoyed that, and having to have a process that’s my own. 

CHIARA KIM: Jasmin said they loved the people they have worked with and the productions they have worked on. One costume in particular stood out to her. 

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I keep mentioning these damn trout costumes. But that was the first big piece I’ve ever sewn. There was roadblock after roadblock with those costumes. It was really a time, but I’m just really proud of how they turned out, and then they actually ended up using those costumes for JTE’s production of “Big Fish.” I think it’s really funny that they’re kind of being passed around now. 

CHIARA KIM: Some of Sophie’s favorite productions also included unconventional elements. She started as an assistant designer for “She Kills Monsters” in the winter — 

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: — and it was kind of a crazy show because it’s all like Dungeons & Dragons. So, we had to make a lot of fantasy costumes, which was a combination of sourcing and then making things from scratch, which was totally, you know, unconventional and crazy.

CHIARA KIM: She was also the costume designer for “The Haunting of Hill House,” a senior thesis project this spring for a student in the theater department.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: That was really fun because I got to play with modern and vintage costumes, but it wasn’t super restrictive because it wasn’t necessarily a period piece.

CHIARA KIM: Sophie loves how costume design gives her the chance to impact the general theme of a show through elements like color scheme and silhouette.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I think that my favorite part of costume design is you can really transform a character with a costume in a way that not a lot of other departments can do. You have a lot of say in the way that every character is presented on stage — I think that’s really, really cool.


CHIARA KIM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Chiara Kim. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia [loo-SEE-ah] Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @chiarafkim 

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