A brief encounter with costume designer Elizabeth Whiting

By Greg Bruce

A few words with Elizabeth Whiting, lawyer-turned-costume designer.
Elizabeth Whiting.
Elizabeth Whiting.

What do law and costume design have in common?

A designer analyses the script of every play worked on, breaking down the action into character (age, sex, occupation, motivation), time period (era, season, time of day), very much as a lawyer analyses a case. The main difference is that a lawyer researches precedents to make sure his case is consistent, whereas the designer strives to move away from precedents and create the new and unexpected.

How has your work affected the way you live?

The design part of my brain never stops working. Every movie I see, every book I read, every journey I make provides inspiration for my work. I was in Melbourne last year working on Sweeney Todd and went on a train journey to Bendigo. I was op-shopping while I was there and found the most amazing collection of vintage 1950s women's hats. These hats provided the trigger for the costume design for Tosca for NZ Opera. For Venus in Fur, underwear has been my focus and fascination for the last few months. I cannot go past a designer underwear store without analysing the effect of new styles of bras and panties.

What discovery or moment most shaped the way you think about your work?

One was watching Douglas Wright dance Rites of Spring when he first came back to New Zealand from New York. I realised that a performer uses every part of their body to perform and that as a costume designer my job was to facilitate and support that process. The other defining moment was the design of the horses in Equus. I realised that to costume a person as a horse I needed to integrate the performer's own body as part of the costume so the audience could translate the beauty of the musculature of the person to the beauty of the body of the horse.

Who has made you rethink the way you work?

I have been teaching design creative workshops for the opera company for 11 and 12 year olds. Teaching them to think creatively and watching them work co-operatively to create sets, costumes and advertising for an opera, in two and a half days, has been inspirational. I also love working with new graduates, as they bring a different set of skills to the design process and these new skills then inform my process.

How does a good costume affect the way we view a show?

A good costume clarifies the nature of the play and helps tell the story underlining the themes, setting, social status of the characters and particular quirks they may have concerning their clothing. The costumes also facilitate spectacle. This can be fun, the designer can be creative without the constraint of realism.

We are all in costume all the time. Discuss.

Each style of clothing we choose needs to be appropriate to the event. If not, there is a clear social disconnect which creates discomfort in the group.

Elizabeth Whiting, lawyer-turned-costume designer, designed ATC's Venus in Fur, Herald Theatre until September 18.

- Canvas

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