Master Conversations: Costume Design with Catherine Kodicek and Lyn Gardner

Costume designer and supervisor Catherine Kodicek shares about her practice and process, and issues around costume awareness and advocacy within the UK theatre context, alongside UK theatre critic Lyn Gardner. This session took place on 25 May 2021 as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable at SIFA 2021.

The inaugural Master Conversations series focuses on production and technical theatre. Through four in-depth presentations, led by master technical theatre practitioners from Southeast Asia and around the world, critics will get insights into and knowledge in the often under-discussed aspects of performance-making.

Below is a reflection by AAMR participant M. Dinu Imansyah, from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on the session.

Telling stories through costume

Ajining Dhiri ana ing Lathi, Ajining Raga ana Ing Busana

(Someone’s existence depends on his tongue, meanwhile, his character depends on what he wears)

– Javanese wisdom 

 The clothes we wear are often the first and most tangible visual element for others. In both social and professional settings, people are judged based on how they are dressed. Similarly in stories, costume is one of the easiest mediums through which to represent one’s character. In the world of stage, the situation is not much different. We can build narratives in our heads just from the actors’ costumes, before they even speak. And yet, no matter how prominent the work of a costume designer in a theatre performance, their importance is still mostly underestimated.

This is what makes Catherine Kodicek, a professional costume designer and supervisor from the United Kingdom, worried. As shared when she spoke at the recent Master Conversation session on costume design, organised as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable 2021, the work of the costume designer, and the complexity of their creation process are often not written about, or appreciated enough via the work of the critic.  

What is interesting from Catherine sharing is that the costume designer does have considerable agency in artistically interpreting the director’s vision via the characters’ costumes. Bringing up the example of her work in The Jungle, a play about a migrant camp in Calais directed by Stephen Daldry, she shared ways in which the costumes supported the storytelling. These ranged from choosing the right outfit and colour to emphasise a migrant character’s heritage and personality, to creating copies of the same costume with different levels of dirtiness, to represent the metamorphosis experienced by a character. 

In this way, a costume designer is also a storyteller, though this is usually a role attributed only to the playwright or director. The costume designer has the power to create a narrative, even without dialogue. A costume designer is a storyteller who, through the choices they make – type of material, choice of colour, level of construction, even the size of the clothes worn by a character – can create layers of subliminal meaning, add to dramatic tension, create different types of atmosphere, amongst other things. Yet ironically, this type of storytelling is rarely acknowledged, nor given adequate attention in reviews. 

Interestingly, this contradicts Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of Poor Theatre, that theatrical events are a matter of interaction between actors and the audience, and that one should reduce any outside elements such as lighting, stage design and costume. Of course, Grotowski may not have intended to demean the position of designers such as Kodicek, nor the specific role of costume design in contemporary performance. 

Does Grotowski want to remind us of the importance of realising what an element presented on the stage represents? Is it just showing off artistic beauty or does it add to a narrative that can be experienced together with the audience? Certainly, hearing Kodicek speak passionately about her projects and the research she puts into her work makes one realise that costume design is not solely a matter of visual appearance, but a way to connect the audience with the characters more deeply. Everything goes back to the idea of empathy. Perhaps as critics, we can benefit from learning more about what goes on behind the scenes of the costumes that we receive onstage as a visual element.  

Overall, I respect the work of Kodicek and all the costume designers in the world who have brought life to the stage – whether through visual spectacle, understated detail or something in between. This is something that we are all sorely missing in today’s situation. 

Master Conversations is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021.

About the author(s)

M. Dinu Imansyah is an actor, director, and music composer for theatre. He is also an art critic and researcher. He was born in Malang, East Java and since 2009 he moved to Jogjakarta, Indonesia to study Master of Art in Gadjahmada University. He is now struggling to finish his doctoral dissertation in Indonesian Art Institute of Solo, Central Java. During this global pandemic, he works part-time as a YouTube content-scriptwriter in Huit International, especially in Channel Dayat Emon and Muvibox, two channels about movie reviewing and spoiling.

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