Twice a year, once in the fall semester and once in the winter semester, McGill University’s Drama and Theatre department puts on a play. A collaboration between student actors in the school, the set and lighting design class, and the costume-making class, all the preparation is run out of the school’s costume shop hidden in the basement of the Arts Building. Catherine Bradley, McGill’s resident costume designer and manager of the Department of English’s costume shop, teaches the history of costume as well as a more hands-on course in which a handful of students design and create the wardrobe for each production. Over the years, Catherine has had a hand in the costumes of dozens of shows, and inspired students to pursue careers of their own wielding needles and sketchbooks.
How did you come to this job?
I have a certificate from Ryerson in fashion design because at the time it wasn’t a university and didn’t grant degrees — it started the year after I graduated. My first job in theatre was in Stratford, which I started even before I had graduated from Ryerson… I worked Stratford and Shaw and the National Arts Center, Montreal Opera, the National Ballet, lots… I was pretty astounded that it was really not hard to find work. Basically at my first job my co-workers said, “oh you should come with us, we’re going to Fredericton to the playhouse,” and I did. I met people there who were working in Toronto next, and they asked me if I would come with them too. I kept being picked up by the next team going to the next place, and as long as you are willing to keep moving with them it works pretty well.
I came to the McGill job when I got a phone call asking if I wanted it. I was working at Stratford at the time and didn’t even know the position was available. I’d only been in costumes for about four years, so it was still quite early in my career. But I had been working as the wardrobe assistant at Concordia during the winter and the wardrobe manager there said that I should take it, so I did.
When did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
It took a long time actually. At first I thought it would be a fun thing to do for the summer, and then I’d get on with my real life as a fashion designer. For the first few years I had one eye out going, “oh, I should really start working in fashion design sometime soon,” but I was working all the time so I didn’t prioritize changing. It was quite a few years before I kind of went, “oh! I guess this is what I’m doing.” I figured I would just do it for as long as it was fun, and it didn’t really stop being fun, so I never got on with my real life. Now this is my real life.
What do you think the role of costumes is in a theatre production?
To illuminate the story for the audience. It’s almost like the illustrations in a book, it helps the text make sense, and on stage it helps all the actions make sense. You are painting the picture on the stage. I think it’s equally important to the lighting, the set, what the actors bring… It’s really important to not think that the part that you bring is any more important than anything else, or more valuable than anything else, because then you start to get egotistical and short-sighted. It’s more about the team.
What is your favourite period to work with and do you prefer menswear or women’s wear?
Victorian! Personally I really like to work on women’s wear. I am intrigued by corsetry and body shaping. I like historical periods much better than modern periods, and I like periods that have a lot of richness to them, and a really elaborate silhouette.
What is your favourite show that you’ve worked on?
The Duchess of Malfi. From a design perspective, it was very challenging. The director wanted something that at first wasn’t at all clear. She had wanted something kind of… a mix of the renaissance silhouette, but with a futuristic rockstar feel. I designed the whole show, I thought I had it but I was completely off. I had studs, and bubble wrap, and leather… it really wasn’t what she wanted. I started completely from scratch and looked at it almost as if it was dance-wear. It’s a very dark play, so I used black window screen fabric and made long skirts that looked a little bit like long ballet tutus. I matched those with black corsets and then accessorized it with just a sleeve, or jewellery, or scrumptious small details. With the men we just did black tights and a doublet. We had velvet hats in rich colours, ornate golds, and rich, rich tones that went over a very sheer layer so you could see through to the body. The lighting was astounding… it was more conceptual; simple and stark in a way, but it also had a kind of jewel-tone overcast. Spike Lyne was the technical director and he was really phenomenal. I feel like he created a set just with lights.
interview by Sydney Warsaw
photography by Arden Wray