With Elf The Musical taking the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, we have penned a short series called “Elfie Tuesday” every Tuesday throughout its run.
In its last week, we are looking at some of the festive creations donned by the 33 cast members of the holiday musical.
The designer behind these masterpieces is Shelly Hall, who has been creating costumes for other Rep productions for several seasons, including productions such as A Christmas Story, Next to Normal, Avenue Q and more.
We had a chance to talk to the designer about her start in costume-making for theatre, her inspiration and design process and what she enjoys most about being a costume designer.
Here is what she had to say:
How did you get into costume-making for theatre?
Growing up, my mom and sister could sew and they made clothes and the best Halloween costumes for me. When I was about 8 years old, my mom showed me how to use her sewing machine, gave me a box of scrap fabric and let me ‘play.’ I created all kinds of ‘designs’ for myself and my dolls and then as I got older, she showed me how to read a pattern and sew for real. I made my own costumes for high school plays and always loved to sew for fun. I never really thought about going into costume design as a career, though. When I went to college, my intent was to be a set designer and actor, but the tech director found out I could sew and he sent me to the costume shop on one of the first productions my freshman year. I still worked on set crew and was pretty good at it, but my sewing skills won out and I spent most of my time building costumes and maintaining the costume shop inventory for the next three years. I still never thought about going into costuming as a career, and ended up not graduating because I chose a different path in life: getting married, having a family and following a career into movie theater/video store management and then ownership.
I continued to make costumes for my kids and for promotional things in our movie theaters. I would costume our staff for big opening night events like The Addams Family, Star Trek Generations, Grease and actually won national recognition from Warner Brothers for Batman Returns in the ‘90s. It wasn’t until much later in life when I decided to go back to school to finish my degree that I realized costume design was my passion. So, 25 years later, I graduated from Jacksonville State University in Alabama with a degree in theatre/costume design.
Finding ideas for costumes is something that I am always watching for, not really on purpose, but just because I find things that interest me on the Internet and in real life fashion that inspire me. I keep random photos of the things I find on my computer and collect books of historical costumes, art, fantasy and all kinds of things. And then when a design opportunity comes along, I start my creative juju with those resources.
As with any show, a designer starts with the script and then draws upon research, input from the director and others, as well as past experiences and ideas. The inspiration for the Christmastown elves in Elf started with remembering a show that I did in college, Seussical the Musical where the designer, Freddie Clements, used fleece and foam tubing to make dresses for the Whos. I knew that I wanted the little girls to have a ‘bell-like’ silhouette and the idea that Freddie used would give me that shape. I also knew I wanted the elves to have a look that resembled a uniform that would set them apart from the ‘real world.’ Band uniforms were the inspiration for that aspect and then their costumes just evolved from the cute side of my brain knowing also that they needed to be colorful, whimsical, happy and fun because Christmastown has to be the happiest place on earth with all the toy making and sugar eating and well, Buddy and Santa!
With a show as well-known as Elf, there are certain images that audiences expect to see: the red and white stripe tights and curly toed elf shoes, Buddy’s look, and of course, Santa. So, I tried to keep these in my design and still add some of my own creativity into the mix. The inspiration for Santa came from the iconic Rockwell-style Coke ads, with a bit of the traditional ‘Father Christmas’ image flare. The Macy’s elves were a compilation of several iconic elements– the striped tights, the triangular pointed collars with dangling jingle bells and of course, the traditional Christmas red-and-green color combination. I felt it was important for the look of the show to keep Buddy as close to his known image as possible, but yet not copy someone else’s creativity 100 percent, so I only made subtle changes to preserve that expected appearance.
What do you enjoy most about being a costume designer?
I love the entire process. It is impossible to single out any phase of costuming that is a clear favorite. I enjoy it all, from the imagination and research stage into actually seeing the design come to life when an actor walks on stage at first dress. Sometimes there are obstacles in the project; difficulty in finding the right fabrics, a pattern that doesn’t quite fit the way you thought it would, trying to figure out how to construct a difficult element for a costume like curly toed elf shoes, or just dealing with a bad idea that seemed like a good idea in the beginning. The satisfaction that comes on opening night when everything is completed, even if there is still something that you wish you would have done differently, (and this happens to all designers I am sure) is so greatly rewarding. It’s the ‘high-five’ moment that makes it all worthwhile.
All remaining shows of Elf are sold out but there are 10 Standing Room Only seats at $40 apiece for each performance. Just stop by the Box Office an hour before showtime to receive a voucher! Call (501) 378-0405 for more information.