Photos by Jennifer Giorno and John Benfield
When I was first writing Mrs. Hawking, my original steampunk play, I knew a big part of the appeal of the story would be the trappings and the spectacle. The look of the steampunk setting would add a great deal of gloss to the tale I was trying to tell, and I wanted to take advantage of everything that setting would afford me. And you can't tell a grand caper set in Victorian London without a few gorgeous period costumes.
The ballroom scene of Mrs. Hawking is a fan favorite. It's Mary's first real mission, when she and Mary go undercover as grand society ladies to the villain Lord Brockton's ball, and she is thrown straight into the deep end. Mrs. Hawking has her distract their opponent by pretending she is the niece of the viceroy of India, and must put on a character that matches the grand ballgown she is wearing as her disguise. It also includes what is probably the best joke in this first play:
MARY: Oh, well, you know how things are… uncle dear thought it was best for me to go away for a while… he feared I was becoming too popular with some of his, well…
LORD BROCKTON: Soldiers, miss?
(She affects a carriage of indignation.)
MARY: My lord! What kind of lady do you take me for? Fraternizing with enlisted men?
(She pauses dramatically.)
MARY: They were all officers!
I do some costume design professionally, and I remember one of the young actresses in a production I worked for a high school asking if when I wrote my own plays, I made sure to write in costuming requirements that were workable. I had to laugh at that, because as often as I bemoan playwrights who design things without any regard to the practicality for production— in fact, I wrote the craft portion of my master’s thesis
on it —because Mrs. Hawking is a perfect example of my falling down on that particular job. Characters have TONS of changes in this play, sometimes every other scene, and in and out of complicated Victorian looks. That's a hell of a task for a cast and a costumer!
Though I pitched in with a few looks for the Arisa 2015 production
, mostly ones I’d already put together for the Mrs. Hawking photoshoots, our primary costume designer was Jennifer Giorno, also the actress playing Grace Monroe. So the challenge of putting together Victorian ballroom looks that could be changed in and out of in very short order fell on her. Not an easy task on our budget! But she got a great idea to see if we could a costume company to agree to sponsor our production by lending us some pieces. That is where Pendragon
came in, a maker of fine costuming with a fabulous selection of steampunk and Victorian looks in their Mad Girl Clothing
In return for credit in our program, they very generously agreed to lend us three pieces of handmade eveningwear for our leads. It was an incredible thing to happen to us, as it gave us the opportunity to have some of the most important costumes in the play be particularly beautiful, as well as practical for the demands of the quick change.
A full Pendragon outfit
can be seen here on Samantha LeVangie in her role as Mary. It was particularly important that Mary come out looking exquisite-- transformatively so --as an indication of Mary's potential to become a powerful, brilliant, dyanmic person. Jenn asked the company if it would be possible to get Mary’s garments in blue, as I’ve long imagined it to be Mary’s signature color.
They provided us with two gorgeous pieces from the Corset Gown Outfit
— the underskirt with its "front panel of chenille fabric sewn to a cotton skirt" and the matching chenille shrug with its "high, snap down collar." Samantha also wears their Corset with Bustle
, loaned to us by a friend who purchased it from Pendragon a number of years ago.
When Jenn told Pendragon that the bustle corset was in the color of Welkin Blue, they chose the blue and brown pattern for the coordinating skirt and shrug. It makes for a lovely and complementary combination, particularly given Sam's coloring and the character of Mary. Sam is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and she wears this so well.
The other piece Pendragon so graciously lent us was for Mrs. Hawking, modeled here by Frances Kimpel. This was also a Corset with Bustle, a particularly useful piece not only because it looked so cool, but because its toggle-hooks running down the front assisted in making the quick change a little easier. Because Mrs. Hawking is a widow, of course it had to be in black.
To keep the looks consistent, Frances also wore a velvet bolero with the labels pinned back so the details of the corset would be visible. The skirts are from Jenn's collection, also part of her ordinary day look. I also made Frances wear those gloves through the entirety of the play, poor thing. It made sense for all her looks-- those where she is supposed to seem like a respectable middle-class widow, and when she is an operating agent in stealth garb.
One thing that was particularly enjoyable was that the same bustle corset had such different effects when worn by these very different characters and their actresses. The same style of corset top makes Mary look like a princess...
...has the aspect of armor when worn on Mrs. Hawking.
If you're interested in owning some of Pendragon's gorgeous costuming, don't hesitate to check out their website.
Their work is both truly beautiful and extremely high-quality.
In fact, there is a chance that the pieces they lent to us are still available for purchase, as they went on sale as soon as our show finished! You could end up owning an artifact from the very first production of Mrs. Hawking