'My job is to have a happy actor'
It was only natural that Peter O’Brien would turn his attention to the stage, given the fashion designer’s theatrical style. But, as his latest project with the Gate shows, his costumes are about more than just show, playing a key role for their wearers
THERE IS AN INHERENTLY theatrical quality to Peter O’Brien’s work, which brings turn-of-the-century embellishments to a modern silhouette. Think wasp-waisted workwear dresses and fitted shirts with elaborate neckline pleats. It was only a matter of time, then, before the fashion designer turned his attention to the stage.
“I have always loved the theatre and the extra drama you can create when designing a costume,” O’Brien says when we meet at the Gate in Dublin to discuss his latest stage work, costumes for the venue’s sumptuous production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance.
“When I was a teenager I was obsessed by old black-and-white films, but I was watching them trying to figure out whether Joan Crawford had cup sequins or flat sequins, or how they constructed a Ginger [Rogers] dress. So I was interested in costume design before I was even interested in fashion; I just didn’t know how you went about it. Thankfully, I got an invitation one day from Michael Colgan,” he says, referring to the the Gate Theatre director.
A Woman of No Importance is O’Brien’s fifth collaboration with the theatre. He has worked at the Abbey Theatre, too, on last year’s production of Pygmalion, for which he was nominated for an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award, and he is putting the finishing touches to costumes for The Talk of the Town, Emma Donoghue’s new play about the stylish Irish writer Maeve Brennan.
If designing for the theatre has allowed O’Brien to embrace his love of dramatic detail, it has also confronted him with the “sad reality” of a different medium. “What I’ve really had to come to terms with,” he says, “is that the life of the costume is a tough, hard-wearing one. The skirts, dresses and suits get pulled on and off seven times a week in very hot, scruffy backstage areas, so they get pretty beaten up. And when I first started working in the theatre, I remember feeling very protective, thinking, ‘Oh no: my lovely frocks; they are going to get ruined!’ There was a Diaghilev exhibition in [the Victoria and Albert Museum in] London recently, and it was shocking to see how worn and faded the costumes were, but there is something wonderful and moving about that too.”
The history is in the stains and tears. Upstairs at the Gate, in the costume department, the narrow corridor is lined with rails that bear the weight of O’Brien’s costumes. The skirts alone are made with up to 12 metres of the heaviest silk faille O’Brien could find.
Although it would be logical to assume the weight of the fabric makes them harder wearing, O’Brien sayshe chooses material less for its durability than for its ability to hold the structure of the dresses.
“Clothes of that period,” he explains, “were quite extravagant, and the most important thing is to get the shape right. When you look at society portraits from the late 19th century by painters like Boldini and Sargent, the shape of the dresses is really distinctive, and that’s to do with the richness and quality of the fabric, which is almost like an armour.
“This heavy satin,” he says, holding up one of many short jackets the female characters wear, “is known in French as satin cuir – leather satin – and you can see that, even from a distance. If there was an accountant around he probably would have said, ‘Ah, you could have just got a bit of polyester silk’. But it absolutely wouldn’t be the same thing.”