Industrial-Strength Wardrobe: Leather and Steel Costumes in Ironmistress
The widow Darby is heir to a vast ironworks empire, but rather than relinquish her leadership status through remarriage or delegation, she proposes to manage the business herself—no easy task in the mid-19th century, when men ruled the world of commerce. This independence is not to be shared with her daughter— nicknamed "Little Cog" by her late father—who is groomed for a more traditional role in society.
The harsh discipline that these two women endure is invoked in clothing reminiscent of bondage garb: floor-length crinolines of ribbed steel connected with tapes, topped by high-collared bodices constructed of saddleweight leather, studded with gleaming metal hardware. Many of these restrictive garments are donned and removed in full view of the audience, unassisted by backstage personnel, with no pause in the wearers' enigmatic dialogue.
"The scene where Little Cog puts on her corset is specified in the script," reports director Karen Yates, "and when [the play] premiered in 1989, it was done realistically, with Victorian-styled gowns." The intricately-wrought armor created by Darcy Elora Hofer for the Oracle Theatre production of Ironmistress, however, required an "orientation tour" to acquaint Katherine Keberlein and Sarah Goeden with the, literal, ins-and-outs of their wardrobe.
"We rehearsed in fabric skirts and corsets," explains Goeden, "but the first time we put on the actual costumes, Darcy walked us through all the different pieces and explained how they worked."
"The buckles and laces definitely called for some practice," concurs Keberlein, "The neck-section on my dress, in particular, was quite rigid—but after a few minutes, I realized how it helped me to embody the character by forcing me to look down my nose and bend in awkward ways."
The most challenging aspect of the costumes, both agree, were the skirts. "Making sure they don't catch on the scenery," says Keberlein, while Goeden cites the garment's latticework structure as an obstacle. "Darcy had put in magnets to help me fasten the skirt quickly for the onstage change, but because of the boning, they didn't hold as well as they would normally—my skirt fell down twice while we were in tech rehearsals. Finally, she added a super-big snap—called a "whopper popper"—at the top, and the problem was solved!"
Both actresses gratefully acknowledge Hofer's efforts to make the clothes as comfortable as possible. "She molded the panels right on us, individually," Keberlein recalls, "and during techs, she took the corsets home every night, where she would make further adjustments so that they would fit better and function more smoothly the next time."
Adds Goeden, "How often, in storefront theater, do you get costumes custom-fitted to your own body?"
Ironmistress runs at Oracle Theatre through February 11.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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