Soup, Sandwich, and Study

By Natalie DiNenno ’18

On Halloween, Williams College staff filled the lower level of the Faculty Club to hear Deborah Brothers, costume designer and lecturer in theater, discuss her creations in the timely talk “Gowns and Monsters.”

The talk was the latest installment of the Faculty Research Luncheon for Staff series, held three times a year for the past 17 years. An opportunity for faculty to share their research, their projects, and their passions with staff from all over campus, the luncheon takes place over a meal of seasonal foods and camaraderie.

Recent topics have featured Professor of English Alison Case, who discussed Nelly Dean, her then-new novel based on Wuthering Heights; Massachusetts Professor of Humanities Susan Dunn, who contextualized the 1940 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Assistant Professor of Biology Matt Carter, who explored the neuroscience behind hunger.

Brothers, who has been at Williams since 1985, focused on her design process, highlighting costumes created for the college’s theater department, Shakespeare and Company, Calliope Theatre, and others. Her inspiration comes from all over—history books, archives, past productions, and pop culture. “I’m taking in what all of you are wearing right now,” she said to the luncheon attendees.

For a single costume, she’ll create a collage of images that reference colors, textures, time periods, character traits—and much more—that she develops into increasingly refined sketches that become the blueprint for the design. From conception of the piece through opening night and beyond, she fine tunes the costumes to fit the needs of the actors and the production, Brothers explained as she flipped through her oversized design books.

After her talk, Brothers opened the floor to questions. One staff member asked if a costume ever changes after its initial design. “Oh, yes,” Brothers said, gesturing to a dressmaking dummy clad in a harpy costume from a recent Shakespeare and Company production of The Tempest. At first, Brothers said, the design was too “Vegas” and not menacing enough. Reaching into the sleeves of the cape, she demonstrated how the actor playing the harpy and Ariel could use the rods inside as a wing-like extension of her arms.

Brothers explained that the actor needed to do a quick change onstage, so the costume had to come off easily. “Pulling a dress over your head is the least dramatic thing you can do,” she joked as, with a flourish, she yanked the harpy costume off the dummy to reveal Ariel’s dress underneath.

The staff who attend the luncheons enjoy getting a glimpse of what students experience with their professors in the classroom—or backstage. “The staff lunches let people learn about the nature of the complexity of other peoples’ jobs,” says Karen Gorss Benko, catalog librarian at Sawyer. “I learned how much more there is to costume design than fitting and sewing. Deborah makes connections that I never would have made, but when you see how it all comes together, it looks inevitable.”

Controller Sue Hogan says she tries to attend every lunch. “It is an insight into what the professors are teaching and what the students are learning,” she says. “I get to see and hear from people that I deal with in my job and understand more about what they are passionate about. I get a little taste of what the students are fortunate to have available to them.”