Replicating historic clothing takes a lot more than a needle and thread.
LSU College of Music and Dramatic Arts assistant professor of costume design Brandon McWilliams will be the guest speaker at “Costuming the Collection: A Gallery Talk Exploring the History of Fashion in Art” at the LSU Museum of Art tonight.
The lecture is being presented in conjunction with the reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection, which unveils a special selection of portraiture art.
McWilliams, with the help of four of his graduate students, re-created the dresses worn by the portrait models in children’s sizes. The miniature gowns were constructed as costumes for the brand new children’s education center.
“I think [the portrait] is beautiful,” McWilliams said. “I think that portraiture is such an interesting art form because, as a designer, it’s the only way you know what people wore.”
The process of replicating the centuries old style of clothing entails historical research, line drawings, pattern drafting and cutting and sewing the fabric together.
McWilliams said the challenge with making the costumes was in manipulating the garment for a body that has no corseted understructure, unlike the typical 1800s attire.
“They weren’t just replicas — they were for kids,” he said.
Altering the durable fabric to shape the bodice, along with pleating all of the material on a smaller frame, also proved difficult, the professor said.
“The conversation becomes about how do you convey this period line,” McWilliams said. “How do you manipulate style lines to evoke shape on something that has no shape at all?”
He identified the correct fabric worn by the sitter in each portrait from observation, logic and deductive reasoning. The reflection of light off the fabric and the buoyancy of the cloth help determine what the garment is made of, as well as shade and dimension.
Four costumes have been created, with eight as the goal for the project.
The idea for the lecture stemmed from McWilliams’ ability to look at a garment in a portrait and correctly guess the year the portrait was made, a skill noticed by museum coordinator of school and community programs Lucy Perera.
“I’m going to take everybody through the typical interrogation process that I would go through to learn period,” McWilliams said.
The costume designer knows the historical information surrounding different portraiture art, specifically the Antebellum period.
“First of all, it’s my trade, it’s what I’ve been trained to do,” he said. “I have an understanding of historical garments, and I happen to understand the pattern of clothing in that period. It’s one that I know and I’ve been doing it for awhile, and I just know these things.”
McWilliams said while partnerships similar to the museum’s and the College of Music and Dramatic Arts seem like a no-brainer, they’re sometimes rare at the university level.
“I think with the nature of the academic system, we forget how rich and how similar so many of these people are for us. So whenever you get the chance to connect with them, like Lucy and I, it’s wonderful, and it’s really rewarding,” McWilliams said.
The professor teaches drawing courses, costume design construction courses, stage makeup courses, an introduction to theatre design course and the history of theatrical style and adornment. He also assists with the LSU Theatre Department and freelances with other major productions.
“Costuming the Collection” begins at 6 p.m. at the LSU Museum of Art.