Illustration: Alicia Clements
Illustration: Alicia Clements
Interviews

Creating the universes of the Spider Woman

Award-winning set and costume designer Alicia Clements discusses the ‘marathon’ journey of bringing Kiss of the Spider Woman to life through costume.

By Melanie Sheridan

Secure your seats to: Kiss of the Spider Woman

‘There’s something about musical theatre that’s different to theatre. The music and the dance is inherently emotional, and it gives this whole other layer to creating a show, creating drama,’ says Alicia Clements, backstage just a couple of days before previews. ‘I feel like I’ve been like running a marathon for the last four weeks. It’s been a big journey.’

Clements is the talent behind the exquisite costumes for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Having last worked with MTC on The Lady in the Van, she’s excited to be back in Melbourne, working on such a big, venerated musical. She’s done musicals before, but never on this scale. ‘The level of discipline the performers have to have – their voices, their bodies, they are just so strict on themselves. Working with them, you’re just in awe of their discipline.’

The cast’s discipline isn’t the only thing Clements is in awe of, however. ‘They’re some of the most generous performers I’ve ever worked with,’ she notes, enthusiastically. ‘They come into a fitting just full of energy, and they’re excited to take on all the ideas I’m giving to them, and then they give me ideas. So it’s been a really joyous process.’

AC Sketches cast rpktwl

Illustration: Alicia Clements

Two different universes

An abundance of ideas is exactly what Clements required for this production. Being unfamiliar with the work or its history when she began, reading the script was ‘a bit overwhelming,’ Clements confides. ‘You’re creating two different universes,’ she says, explaining it took ‘a lot of interpretation to bring together the reality of the grim, torturous prison world versus the fantasies that break into it.’ There’s the world inside the jail, which she didn’t want to be indicative of any particular time or place, whilst still evoking the horror of the setting; then there’s the world inside Molina’s memories, the world of old Hollywood glamour and make-believe.

 

‘I delved through the archives of old Hollywood to figure out the archetypes of femininity that the great actresses of the 20s through to the 60s have taken on in their career arcs.’

 

For the former, her initial thought was ‘what do the prisoners look like? What unifies them?’ The look she ultimately invented for them – ‘these very kind of gender neutralising, homogenous outfits’ – is informed partially by research; but for the most part, it has come from her own imagination, to reinforce the non-specific time and place of the prison. She also had to take into account whether or not the performers were doubling as other characters, to ensure they’re able to switch between roles ‘without having to go through massive costume changes’. So the colour schemes for the prisoners and the guards are very similar, with Clements adding few items that give the guards ‘quite a structured, much more official silhouette.’

AC Sketches Prisoners webcrop rbagrn

Illustration: Alicia Clements

The world of the Spider Woman is the complete opposite: ‘her world is so elaborate and fantastical,’ Clements enthuses. ‘Every single one of Caroline’s numbers had to be this punch of colour and tone, and it had to be completely different than the last one. So I started by trying to figure out what the right vibe was for each number. What kind of screen siren she would have been playing in all of those numbers.’

To achieve all this, each of Caroline’s costumes has a different colour scheme, and a very different silhouette. ‘One’s incredibly soft and romantic; one is really vampy and sexy; another one is sort of bold and flamboyant. Each one has to convey a completely different type of ideal womanhood. Caroline’s body is sculpted in completely different ways in every outfit, and she looks really different in every single one.’

AC Sketches Aurora 1 webcrop tlyspp

Illustration: Alicia Clements

To inspire all these looks, Clements ‘delved through the archives of old Hollywood, to figure out the archetypes of femininity that the great actresses of the 20s through to the 60s have taken on in their career arcs – the ingénue, the vamp, the grand dame…’

Dressing dancers

One of the biggest challenges Clements faced on this production is simply that it’s a musical. ‘Caroline is an incredible dancer, a world-class dancer. So, on top of the fact that you’re creating a very specific look that has to convey a very specific message, she’s also dancing like crazy in it and has to execute some really difficult choreography. And you want the dress to be all floaty and beautiful but you also don’t want her to put a stiletto heel through the fabric! You don’t want her to have to worry about her costume, or to trip, or to have other people get caught in it.’

AC Sketches Aurora 4 webcrop wn6p44

Illustration: Alicia Clements

On top of that, she also had to make sure the outfits are robust enough to withstand being danced in eight times a week. ‘You want to execute costumes in the most delicate, most beautiful, sensitive way,’ she says, while ensuring the star can ‘run offstage, do a quick change in two minutes, completely change wig, costume, shoes, stockings, underwear. You have to figure out what materials are going to be best for that; what kind of closure will do up and down really reliably and easily every night, but also you don’t want to see that once she gets on stage; you want it to look like it was really easy. So, by far, that’s the hardest part. Can they do the splits in it every night?’

ReDress of the Spider Woman

Clements loves all the costumes, but she especially loves the ‘red Russian dress’. Every time their leading lady put it on, she says, the crew all clapped ‘because the silhouette is so exaggerated. But she just wears it, and it looks incredible on her; she can wear a big outfit, because she knows how to walk, she knows how to hold herself. So I really love that dress.’

AC Sketches Aurora 5 webcrop y8h49y

Illustration: Alicia Clements

But her favourite costume is probably that of the Spider Woman herself. ‘It’s the most subtle of all of the outfits, it’s the most delicate. It’s all constructed out of lace and sheer netting and it’s all black but it doesn’t cloak her in darkness, and she still has so much freedom to move. It came together better than I imagined.’

It was also the one that challenged her the most. ‘The other outfits all draw on classic ideas, classic Hollywood looks. But the spider woman is a completely invented character. She's actually a creature of fear to Molina. She represents death, she represents life, beauty – she represents all these ideas, and she’s incredibly surreal in how she enters and leaves the space, so I would have spent the longest thinking about that costume, nutting out ideas, workshopping it.’

 

‘You put a true star in an outfit, and you can take away, like, 50% of the design. It’s all in the person who’s wearing it.’

 

Her original ideas were a lot: ‘they’ve got capes and they’ve got hats and they’ve got trains, there’s a lot of elements. I’m locked in a studio on my own, thinking about how I can convey every aspect of what this character is through one costume, but then you put an actor in it and they bring all of themselves to the costume. This was a real learning curve for me: you put a true star in an outfit, and you can take away, like, 50% of the design. It’s all in the person who’s wearing it, and Caroline is such a presence.’

See Kiss of the Spider Woman at The Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until 28 December.

Published on 19 November 2019

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