Clothes Maketh the Woman

Ivan explaining his design concept to the cast and crew

Ivan Heng – no stranger to the intricacies of feminine fashion – will be making his debut as the costume designer for The House Of Bernarda Alba. He chats with us about the storytelling power of clothes and the challenges of designing costumes for a cast of 40 women.

What prompted you to to make your debut as a costume designer with this production?

It’s very difficult to say no to Glen Goei! “YOU will design the costumes!” he said to me. “What?! Oh no, I won’t!” “Oh yes, you will!” And that was it!

What appeals to you about the field of costume design?

I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was in secondary school! I had all these drawings: sketch books and complete collections. Do you know Peter Teo, from PS Café? Well, we were best friends at the time and he wanted to be an actor. But look at how things have turned out: it’s all sliding doors, really!

I love the idea of telling stories, and this has allowed me to do so through costumes. It’s about creating a character through what they wear – the way we clothe ourselves can provide clues about our stories, our personalities. It’s about how we face the world: clothes can be like armour, sometimes. Coco Chanel famously said, “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” That has been a guiding inspiration.

Tell us about your process.

I just read and read and read the script, and I’m still reading the script. It’s creating the imaginary world of our production – our House of Bernarda Alba, taking into account the period, climate and status of the family. I think of the theatrical event in time and space, the temperature and rhythms of each scene. It’s about the time of day, it’s about how much time an actor has to change. It’s about all those little details. It’s about how they want to present themselves to the world in a specific situation. And it’s about how comfortable you are in your body. There are so many clues you can get from the script.

What’s your design concept for this production?

The play is an enduring classic, and I wanted a sense of timelessness to the collection. I hope this will give audiences entry points into a play written eighty years ago, to enable us to see ourselves and stories on stage. Poncia tells us, “You know, Bernarda – it’s all about appearances.” There’s certainly a sense in which we’ll be reflecting the thematic constraints at the heart of the play – think black on black, corsets, kebayas, jewellery.

Ivan and his assistant Theresa Chan checking out black lace for the show’s many kebayas

This is an all-female cast. Is that challenging for you as a designer?

I have cross-dressed for quite a range of roles – the first time I did so was in M. Butterfly, and that was in 1989 or 1990! Playing women has given me a certain empathy. As a designer, I’ve had the benefit of having had to morph into a woman and working with shapes and forms. When I talk to Theresa about costumes, we talk about the actors’ bodies, their characters, and their shoes. And of course, good underwear is everything! All women should wear good underwear, onstage and off! It gives a woman form and structure. And it has to fit and it has to be comfortable.

You’re designing for a cast of forty, including the Chorus.

Lorca wrote about a wall of “wailing women”. It’s an ensemble – representing women and the community in which they live. So we have to strike a balance between creating quite a uniform chorus, and giving them a variation of shapes for each person.

How closely are you working with the actors as you design the costumes?

On the first day of rehearsal in early February, I made a presentation to the entire company. I like them to be able to have a visual of themselves, in terms of how the director and I have envisaged they will look. It will give them clues in developing their characters.

When I did Emily Of Emerald Hill, I rehearsed in costume. Glen has said that we need corsets and sarongs ready for when rehearsals start. Wearing a long skirt or a sarong is completely different than wearing shorts! So, from the first day, they’ll be rehearsing in costume – in corsets! The entire body is different. There’ll be fans and footwear ready as well, so that they will literally step into another’s shoes. The actors will be working on their characters from the inside out, but this also gives them a way to work from the outside in.

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