"You are a hard one, aren't you?" said Norma Shearer as Mary Haines to Joan Crawford's character Crystal Allen in the pivotal confrontation scene of the movie "The Women."
"Oh, I can be soft on the right occasion," Crawford cooed back, striking a match to light her cigarette.
That climactic moment in the 1939 film captured more than the prickly relationship between Haines and her husband's mistress. Set against the backdrop of a high-end boutique dressing room, the two sides of Crystal Allen's personality - part tigress, part turtledove - also described fashion on the cusp of 1940. Women's clothes still clung to the supple glamour of bygone eras but within the stiffer, more severe context of World War II.
Peter O'Brien, costumer for The Gate Theatre's "Present Laughter," running through the end of Spoleto Festival USA, turned to "The Women" for inspiration when designing the production, set in the same year. Not that O'Brien needed a lesson from the movie's iconic designer, Adrian Greenberg - known famously as just Adrian.
O'Brien is a luminary in his own right, having reached the height of fashion as the creative director of Parisian haute couture house Rochas from 1989 to 2003. Before that, the Irish designer spent four years at Chloé.
"You have to be careful that it doesn't become a fashion show," O'Brien said of costuming the play. "In Paris, you have a fit model who is 5'10 without breasts who virtually everything looks fantastic on. But with a character you have someone with a real shape. You have to serve the play and not let the play serve your ego."
With an immaculate sense of taste and a master's knowledge of construction, O'Brien clothed the characters in Noel Coward's comedy in around 20 costumes built by the theatre ranging from practical daywear to luxurious eveningwear.
O'Brien aimed for the restrained hallmarks of the time, when hemlines crept sensibly to the knee, waists were slimly streamlined and shoulders became more emphasized. But he also highlighted a sense of frivolity in the hats, shoes and evening gowns. The floor-length, draped gowns in rich chiffon, jersey and crepe de chine particularly catch audiences' attention.
Paris Jefferson, as the pointedly sassy Liz Essendine, appears in the final scene wrapped in a long-sleeve navy silk velvet gown with a low-cut back. Jefferson said the costume often elicits a gasp from the audience when she turns to walk upstage.
Jefferson plans to buy the dress to wear to a friend's wedding in June. Velvet in June? Not in Charleston. The actress lives in Ireland, a land of nonexistent summer heat.
"I can't believe how good I look," she said. "The bad news is, after wearing Peter's clothes, everything else is a potato sack. You put the costumes on and wish he could make all your clothes. It's an impossible dream."
A long-time fan of full pleated skirts and accented waistlines, Jefferson said she's always strived to achieve a vintage look with her personal style. Subsequently, she feels like a hand in a glove wearing the late '30s, early '40s designs on stage. And that includes the quirky hats created by a milliner in London.
"The hats are little stories," Jefferson said. "They have to be seen to be believed."
Fiona Bell, who plays sarcastic secretary Monica Reed, said her character's party look isn't the most extravagant of the set, but she cherishes that it fits her like couture.
"It's like wearing cream," she said. "I think Peter felt sorry for her because he gave me an evening dress with an amazing white wool crepe coat. It's pure Joan Crawford. It's my favorite thing I've ever worn on stage."
Phillip Crook is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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