Recycled Wedding Dresses Get New Life with Shakespeare
“We use every part of the animal,” says renowned costume designer Lindsay W. Davis. He’s holding what used to be a pink party dress. “This little girl’s 1950s party dress had chocolate stains on the front. We opened it up and stuffed it, and now it’s a bustle!”
By “animal,” Davis isn’t talking about a living creature, but about previously worn clothing that he deconstructs and re-imagines into costumes for venues such as Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre Shakespeare Festival. To their previous owners, they are castoffs, but in the hands of Lindsay W. Davis, they gain a new life and vibrant personality.
Davis, whose impeccable credentials include designing the original costumes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a Tony Award Winning Best Musical on Broadway, is no stranger to the notion of recycling old clothing into wearable art.
Having designed costumes for 13 Academy Award winners (Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, Helen Hunt, Marcia Gay Hardin, and more), he is well known in the entertainment industry. And his passion for conserving used garments is infused in every costume he creates.
“If an animal gave up its life, it seems only right to use all parts of it,” Davis says again. “The same is true for a leather jacket — or a wedding dress.”
In meetings with Riverside Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jody Hovland, for Love’s Labors Lost, Davis came up with a new idea. “Since this is a comedy about love that doesn’t work out,“ he said to Hovland, “why don’t we get wedding dresses and recycle them, turning them into beautiful turn-of-the-century gowns?”
“We both thought that was a grand idea!” Davis adds.
So Hovland put out a call for donations of previously worn wedding dresses. “We got 16 wedding dresses donated from Iowa City!” Davis exclaims.
“Who would give away their wedding dress?” I wonder aloud.
“Local people,” he replies. “People who know their old dress isn’t really something they want anymore: The dress is out of style, the fabric is wrong, or it’s just not good enough to keep. Yet, they have enormous guilt about throwing it away. And they know, with Riverside Theatre, it’s being used for a better purpose.”
But for Davis, the fabric in these old dresses is perfect. And the styles can be changed by taking the dresses apart and reassembling them with pieces of other garments. It’s something he’s been doing for decades.
Davis lets me try on a glorious beaded gown. “The sleeves are cut from the skirt of one dress,” he says. “Another beaded sheath dress became the center front panel on the skirt.” And on and on. Each piece of the gown was cut from another of the donated wedding dresses.
I take mental notes while he pins the pink bustle under the overskirt, completing the image. But I can’t keep up. So many parts of this dress used to be something else. And it is drop-dead gorgeous.
The gown doesn’t fit, of course, as each piece of wardrobe is custom made for an individual actor. But wearing it makes me feel like royalty. Who knew a Victorian gown could be so heavy? I now understand the practicality behind queens and princesses of old having ladies-in-waiting to help them dress.
In our culture, wedding dresses are almost always brilliantly white from neck to floor. Yet the dresses Davis created from white wedding dresses include a brilliant blue, two lavenders, and an aqua, with accents of lighter and darker shades.
“I’m a pretty good dyer,” Davis says, grinning.
“Pretty good” doesn’t describe his skill by half. As he explains a bit about his technique, I gain a new appreciation for the fine art of dyeing.
“We do what’s called a vertical dye,” he says. “That’s when you put multiple fibers in the same pot using different kinds of dyes.
“Most people look at a white wedding dress and think it’s all one fabric. When the dress is all white, you don’t notice but, really, it could be made from several different fibers — poly and rayon and silk, for example. And each one reacts differently with the same dye.
“If you have a jacket made of poly and rayon or poly and a natural fiber, and you put it into a vat of dye, it comes out plaid!” he says, laughing.
“We tried to get as close to the same color in the dye for each dress, but it still separated,” Davis says, explaining the darker or lighter shades of lace on each gown.
Streamlined men’s suits in vivid hues hang in the dressing room alongside the gowns. The overlong men’s jackets reminiscent of early Edwardian styles form a fascinating and playful juxtaposition to the elegant, ladies’ costumes we’re admiring from the ever-so-slightly earlier period.
“This green, recycling idea started because of time and money,” Davis says. “Putting on two giant productions in six weeks, you have to be incredibly efficient in human resources and money.” He’s referring to Riverside Theatre’s annual Shakespeare Festival, which runs from June 11 through July 11 this year.
“Do you see these marks on the back of the vest?” he asks, pointing to another costume for Romeo and Juliet. “Renee Garcia and I made those by putting clamps on the fabric before I put it into the vat to dye.” The marks are unique, and visually give the fabric texture when seen from the audience.
“We dye, cut, and reconstruct as many as we can. Nothing goes to waste. We take the hanging straps from one dress and use them as the stay tapes in shirt collars. We stuff big sleeves with remnants of wedding dresses,” he says, “and it’s worked unbelievably well.”
That’s no surprise at all, considering Davis’ illustrious career. His first New York job after graduating from New York University with a Master’s degree (he got his undergraduate degree from Harvard) was designing costumes at Radio City Music Hall. With decades of experience designing costumes for Broadway productions and film, he now focuses primarily on teaching up-and-coming talent at the University of Missouri in Kansas City (UMKC).
Davis also accepts occasional special assignments, such as this two-show gig in Iowa City. He designed and created the fashions for Love’s Labors Lost, but he is quick to give credit for the Romeo and Juliet costumes to Renee Garcia.
“I ran the shop and cut all of the garments and decided how the pieces we acquired would be recycled and re-cut, but am not the actual designer,” he tells us. Garcia is one of Davis’s students, who recently received her MFA from UMKC.
Several of the men’s costumes from Romeo and Juliet were created using castoff leather jackets the designers purchased from Goodwill and other thrift stores for just a few dollars each.
“It’s phenomenally expensive to purchase leather, and super time-consuming to work with it,” Davis tells us. By cutting up the used jackets, he is free to add embellishments, like the series of Xs applied to the back of a black leather vest.
Davis shows us how the principle of “use every part of the animal” also applies to the costumes Garcia designed. He offers Joe a chance to don a doublet and pants from the show. The transformation is startling, as Joe turns from modern-day photographer to a 16-century courtier. If not for his 21st-century glasses and his shaved head, he might just pass for a character from Romeo and Juliet.
Displaying another garment, he says, “This vest used to be a lady’s ’70s jacket.” And, when he points out the features, we can see it. But the artistry in the design and construction are such that the vest’s origins aren’t apparent to the uninitiated.
Asked how he is able to sew through the heavy leather and other fabric required for the play, Davis tells us he uses “a 1950s industrial sewing machine and super-strong nylon thread.” This is not your average grandmother’s sewing machine.
“I feel so strongly about re-use,” the master costume designer says. “Whether it’s a wedding dress or leather jacket, even if all parts of a repurposed garment aren’t used in its second incarnation, we save the bits to cut them up on a third garment.”
Joe and I have been meeting with Davis in the dressing rooms of the Shakespeare stage in Iowa City’s City Park, which, incidentally, is the stage where we were married two days shy of six years ago. The idea of tearing apart and reassembling wedding dresses into new creations has an odd similarity to the optimistic assembling of second-time-around marriages.
Wonderful things can happen when old dresses (or old people) are mixed together in improbable ways. And when the creation takes place in the hands of a master, such as Lindsay W. Davis, the result is a work of art.
Note: Love’s Labors Lost and Romeo and Juliet will finish their runs at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City this weekend. To purchase a ticket, contact the box office at 319.338.7672 or order online. Final shows are Saturday (Romeo and Juliet) and Sunday (Love’s Labors Lost).