'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.”
O’Brien admits his emphasis on fabric means the costumes are expensive, but although he won’t compromise on quality there are ways of cheating when you need to, he says.
“In 1893,” he explains, referring to the year in which A Woman of No Importance premiered, “it was very common for dresses to be made in two pieces: a boned bodice and a skirt. So what you see [in the production] is one skirt used in different scenes but matched with different bodices: one decollete for eveningwear and a simpler one for the day.”
O’Brien also supplemented the costumes with embellishments from his own collection of haberdashery, accumulated over years working with Chloé, Givenchy, Christian Dior and other Paris fashion houses.
For O’Brien, the process of designing a costume begins with a conversation with the director. “Once I know what they are looking for – whether they are going for something conceptual or realistic, sticking to the original time frame or setting the play in a different era – I do loads of research. Then I sort of forget about it and start to draw.”
He opens a portfolio of exquisite drawings from A Woman of No Importance in a palette of nudes and greys, which feature detailed notes on character quirks as well as fabric requirements. “My main inspiration was a book of black-and-white photographs from the 1880s and 1890s by Paul Nadar. More than portraits or fashion illustrations, in the photographs you saw what people actually wore, and we thought it would be interesting if we followed that and didn’t use any colour. So Mrs Arbuthnot wears a black dress because she is in mourning for her husband, and we contrasted that by dressing the puritanical Hester in ivory; in those days young women did tend to wear very pale colours.
“The character of Mrs Allonby is very chic and bitchy, and every designer’s trick for chic is to put the character in the simplest dress and let everyone else get lost in a haze of sequins and tulle. I also put spiky pleats at the shoulders of her dress, as her character is quite spiky. But you don’t rationalise decisions like that while you’re drawing, and it would be pretentious to pretend it is more cerebral than that.”
Yet O’Brien is aware that for the actors, especially, costume can be an integral part of character, “and ultimately my job is to have a happy actor, to arm them so that they go out feeling confident. Because though you are there with them for the first read-through, and then all of tech week, doing midnight fittings, after first night you aren’t needed but they continue to play it night after night.
“I actually feel quite bereft after the first night,” O’Brien says wistfully as he caresses an impeccable neckline wrapped in delicate tulle. “But that is what’s so wonderful, and tragic, about the theatre. You see a miraculous performance and then it vanishes.”
A Woman of No Importance is at the Gate Theatre until September 22nd. The Talk of the Town is at Project Arts Centre from September 27th to October 14th as part of Dublin Theatre Festival