See the magic behind the curtain with these 3 Birmingham costume designers

Birmingham costume designers
Samford students look through colorful costumes. Photo via Miranda Shaffer for Bham Now

Theatre whisks us away from reality to a world of romance, fantasy and other exciting stories. But, could you picture Cinderella without her sparkling blue gown or the wicked witch without her black garb and pointed hat? Costumes are what make a show come together into an iconic visual masterpiece, and if you’re wondering how it’s done, we spoke with three Birmingham costume designers to fill us in on their journey and details behind their designs.

1. Mary Taylor Gurney—Samford University Theatre

Birmingham costume designers
Meet Mary Taylor Gurney, one of our incredible Birmingham costume designers

Mary Taylor Gurney has been in the costume design business for decades, and has brought her extensive talents to Samford University’s Theatre Department. If you’ve seen a Samford show, and that means anything from classic theatre to Step Sing, you’ve seen Mary’s designs.

Mary started her path into the world of costume design when she was only eight years old. She recalls hand sewing a clown costume for her younger brother one Halloween, and her love for creating costumes never stopped.

Flash-forward and Mary was creating children’s Halloween costumes out of her home and doing quite well until the economical environment led her to open up a costume shop in downtown Birmingham. Years ago you could find this shop, The Playhouse, located across from The Alabama Theatre. It was stocked full of a variety of original costumes Mary had created and collected throughout her life.

Mary closed up shop and moved her collection to Samford University a little over a decade ago. Now you can find her training students on everything from the basics of sewing to creating an entire show’s wardrobe.

“I’m totally here for the students, and I want them to have all the wonderful experiences that I was able to have.”

Mary Taylor Gurney, Instructor of Costume Designer, Samford University

Mary loves building costumes, but her true passion is building up her students.

The design process

Birmingham costume designers
The glitz and glam of the life of Birmingham costume designers. Photo via Miranda Shaffer for Bham Now

Although she’s found a love for education, you can’t stop Mary from creating. She is currently the full-time costumer for Opera Birmingham and recently helped her students build almost all of the pieces for both Samford’s productions of Little Women and 1776.

We got her insight on the process she goes through when creating a show’s wardrobe:

  • 1. Initially read the script
  • 2. Get the director’s vision for the show
  • 3. Put together vision boards
  • 4. Read the script again and again to truly get to know the characters
  • 5. Start construction and focus on fittings to find the perfect fit for the actor

2. James Lebo—Virginia Samford Theatre

Birmingham, Virginia Samford Theatre, summer camp
See the outfits created by Birmingham costume designers. Photo via Virginia Samford Theatre

James Lebo is the resident costume designer at the Virginia Samford Theatre, and with a forty year career under his belt his expertise shines through every show. Whether he is creating original designs or coordinating already created costumes, James is the man behind the fantastic outfits you see on stage.

The costumes you’ll see are always either original pieces, an rented collection or a combination of original and rented parts.

When it comes to making original pieces, James says it’s a nice plus to have that complete control over what you want the look to be—the fabric, color, texture and fit. James finds it very important to listen to the actor’s input when designing his costumes, too. For example, their ideas about who their character is and how they will be presenting them.

“It’s the job of a costume designer to help bring life to that characterization, and you can do that through silhouettes, fabric choices, texture, etc.”

James Lebo, Virginia Samford Theatre

James’ journey to designing a costume begins with the script. Starting with a read-through, he can get inspired by anything from a specific character to a particular line. After he visualizes what these characters represent, he discusses the vision with the director to make sure their ideas line up.

What a character is wearing will give the audience an immediate first-impression of them before they even speak a line. James says it’s important the audience can tell from that first look who that character is, good or bad.

The concept of color association is something James and many costume designers focus on. You can easily identify the villain from their black outfit and the hero by their brightly-colored attire.

It’s up to the costume designer to make sure the message is clear.

3. Heather Hood—Red Mountain Theatre

These Birmingham costume designers are putting on a show. Photo from Red Mountain Theatre Company

It takes a lot to put together a show at Red Mountain Theatre, and Wardrobe Supervisor, Heather Hood, gave us an inside look on how they come up with the perfect costumes.

Heather graduated with a degree in costume design and started out working as a seamstress in the costume shop. Now she does a little bit of everything as Red Mountain’s resident Wardrobe Supervisor. She goes through rehearsals and dress rehearsals to make sure all things costume-wise look fabulous. She also maintains all outfits so they stay in good condition.

Whoever is a show’s costume designer will meet with the director and the production team to discuss what angle they want to take on a specific play. Red Mountain uses a lot of standard rentals for the big performances, but Heather still keeps her sewing hands busy as she often has to rebuild rental costumes that don’t look just right.

“When I worked on the college level, the costume designer would design the show, then give us a drawing and fabric swatch. Then we’d get measurements, flat pattern it and build it.”

Heather Hood, Red Mountain Theatre

With their show Porgy and Bess, which Heather received a design award for, she went back to the beginning by creating an all-new wardrobe from scratch.

Although regional theatre often sticks to the classics, Heather loves getting creative through problem-solving. There will be a costume they have to use that may not fit right or is missing something, and she loves to rise to the challenge to make it show-ready.

Catch Heather’s talents on display for yourself at Red Mountain’s Holiday Spectacular this Christmas season.

What else do you want to know about Birmingham’s theatre scene? Let us know by tagging us @bhamnow!

Miranda Shaffer
Miranda Shaffer
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