Flowers, feathers, paper and tape

Paper route: A detail of designer Liz White’s entry, made from recycled Mountain Xpress newspapers.

Fashion shows tend to be variations on a formula: Designers or boutiques send models draped in the latest apparel down the runway to the beat of something indie/pop-y/electro-dance-y. Costume Drama: A Fashion Show (part of DramaRama, Asheville Community Theatre's weeklong fundraiser) is shaking all that up.

Costume Drama takes its cues from the fashion-forward reality show Project Runway, in which designers are given themed challenges (design a dress for a figure skater!) and wacky materials (using only items from this junk car!) to complete in insanely short periods of time. While Costume Drama’s participants had a month or so to prepare, the materials selected for each category — flowers, feathers, paper and tape — are a far cry from typical cottons, silks and laces.

DramaRama evolved out of DivaLicious, ACT's fundraiser concept for the last five years. Event planner Sara Fields, who is organizing Costume Drama, jokes that, as last year’s winning Diva, she benefits from the discontinuation of that event since she never has to retire her crown. She is, decidedly, non-diva in the work she's put into the new fashion show.

“DramaRama is a whole week of events, each of which will be tailored to a different audience,” says Fields. (Other events include Theatre Trivia Night and a viewing of the singalong version of Grease at the Fine Arts Theatre.) The idea is to attract new people (this is a fundraiser, after all), but it's also intended to be affordable.

Fields says that Costume Drama will appeal to the local design community as well as “Asheville's fashion lovers. I think there's a lot of them.” The inspiration for the show was born out of the idea of how, in theater, each costume has to be tailored to time period or style based on a given character. “We wanted to see how stylists would fare given similar parameters,” she says. Organizers also looked to Project Runway and brainstormed four categories (the aforementioned flowers, feathers, paper and tape) based on materials that are easily accessed.

Designers had to state their category (meaning, which material they wanted to work with) when they signed up for the competition. And, with 24 entrants (including a number of well-known local designers like Jen Swearington, Stina Andersen, Liz White, MaryLou Sanders of Spiritex and Susan Sertain of the Costume Shoppe), competition for the $500 best in show grand prize is likely to be fierce.

About those categories: If a tape dress sounds like a fashion don’t, Fields points out that the duct-tape dress has become a much-Googled sensation. (It's a prom trend, so much so that Duck brand duct tape is holding a scholarship contest, awarding thousands of dollars for the best duct-tape prom ensembles.) Plus, tape comes in a range of colors and patterns, from zebra to plaid.

The paper category, says Fields, “was inspired by the paper dresses that are in the windows at Minx.” When Minx's paper dress designers Juniper Cooper and Joti Marra Ramsey applied, early on, to DramaRama, Fields was happy. But paper dresses have a much longer local history, dating back to the late 1960s when Mars Manufacturing Company of Asheville became the leading paper dress manufacturer during paper apparel's short but frenzied fad.

Feathers, says Fields, “are very in right now.” Think jewelry and hair accessories. While flowers (especially at the height of summer) are everywhere, too, they're trickier to work with. Live flowers have a short life span: A wilted dress is unlikely to win any awards.

But Carly Robbins from Blossoms at Biltmore Park “will have a really unique dress — she'll probably be the only one in the competition with a dress made from live flowers,” says Fields. “She'll be on a super-tight schedule, basically having to make it the day of the event.” And Robbins has never made a cloth garment before, let alone a floral one.

But there is some help in the process. Designers can use whatever foundation (fabric, mesh, tulle, etc.) they want for the costume, as long as what's visible is the material of their chosen category. And there's a team of hair designers from many local salons on board to create looks on the models that are consistent with the garments going down the runway.

In the end, the competition comes down to the designers and their fans: “The winners are determined by the audience,” says Fields. “And votes are $1 each.”

So can a win be bought? “I think it would be hard to do,” says Fields, who suspects audience members will have a set amount that they're willing to spend.

Already, Costume Drama is showing signs of popularity: Some designers had to be turned away after the event was full. Fields hopes to grow both the talent pool and the fan base in coming years — a boon for local theater and local fashion.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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