To Costume Designer Dann Barber, anything can be a clue. Before he begins designing characters’ costumes, he surrounds himself with references to immerse himself in the world of the production. ‘For me it’s important to find story,' he says. 'There’s the story that’s being told in the script, but how else can we do that through the costume they’re wearing.' Learn more about the costumes in this Q&A.
What jumped out at you in the script?
I’m quite drawn to gothic and absurd characters so I connected immediately to the ghosts and spirits in the play: the ghost of Bubi; the rein-dybbuk (a demon in Jewish folklore that‘s possessed the body of a reindeer); a giant gingerbread golem; and Lilith Claus. The thought of having these fantastical creatures on the Melbourne Theatre Company stage is really exciting from a design perspective. Its the careful irreverence and fusion of both cultures that I was drawn to, and a completely original reimagining of the Dickens novel.
Can you tell us about some of the designs for each character?
One of the opportunities with costume design came through dressing characters through different passages of time. So we see them in the present, then seven years in the past in 2016, the 1990s and scenes in Poland in 1938. With each comes a very different sense of style and fashion. The first time we see Bubi (Evelyn Krape), she comes from a version of heaven we‘ve imagined to be similar to a Florida resort. Director Sarah Giles‘s references have been things like Grandma Yetta [from The Nanny] with a bit of Dolly Parton-esque fashion thrown in. So the textures are things like iridescent sparkles, pearls and sequins to depict her in the afterlife. To contrast the rather strict palette of red and greens of Christmas, Bubi sits outside that in blues and oranges. She is the classic humbug and hater of all things festive. There‘s a fair amount of pattern bashing going on there just to do my head in, and flower motifs for days linking all of her looks both when she's alive and a ghost.
With Carol (Louise Siversen), she‘s Ben‘s adoring, grieving mother whose favourite holiday is of course, Christmas. We first meet her in the present day on Christmas night, she's wearing a boujee pair of novelty reindeer antlers as a headband with a dress she's been looking forward to wearing all year. These antlers become more theatrical when Louise becomes the spirit of Christmas past, the Rein-Dybbuk. She‘ll be wearing a beautiful velvet tux that‘s been completely ruined from her demonic, debaucherous existence. The story in my mind is she's drunkenly galloped into a Christmas tree and a garbage bin, so there's all manner of rubbish and festiveness caught in her antlers and mane.
The inspiration for Fran (Natalie Gamsu), Ely‘s mother, is a bit boho with a touch of JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist) so I‘ve taken influences from singers of her youth like Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. Those influences have become more like a version of Cher walking down the street in a movie about witchcraft, so she‘ll be drenched in totems and trinkets of Judaica, amulets and Kabbalah bracelets. I‘ve tried to tap more into who Fran is by having her in a darker costume base under the lighter, more colourful garments. This darkness comes from her relationship with her mother, and a sense that history is repeating itself with her daughters. Natalie also doubles as the ghost of Christmas future, traditionally the Grim Reaper but here as Lilith Claus. The design is riffing on the gothic film The Woman in Black or a grieving widow ghost from a B-grade horror film textured with layer upon layer of black fabric and piles of lace.
Given that most of the characters work in a bakery, both in the past and in the present, there is a layer of flour that has been dusted and smudged on a lot of the clothing. This helps to communicate location and history but also gives a poetic layer to the costumes as each character is suppressing or hiding or covering up their grief for people they have loved and lost. The flour gets everywhere and binds them together in a beautiful way.
What are some of your favourite pieces?
I think one of my favourite costumes would be the apron that Ely (Miriam Glaser) wears which has been handed down by Bubi. It's made from the fabric of old flour sacks found in the bakery. Bubi would have made it herself with old tablecloths and tea towels added to linen bags. The garment is predominately words and vintage flour logos. When the apron is worn by a heavily-pregnant Ely in the present, that's where it becomes useful to show the passage of time. We designed it so it would have her pregnant belly attached, allowing Miriam to easily remove the apron when she jumps into the past. We meet Ely at a time where she's living with immense grief and the apron looks aged, worn and tattered. This contrasts to when we see Bubi in the past when the bakery is thriving and the apron is in a better condition.