Costume Drama returns to the ACT Mainstage

PUT A BOW ON IT: Hannah Kepple models Rebecca McClure Morgan's winning design in the ribbon category from the 2017 Costume Drama. Photo by Myriah Wood / MCW Photography

Last year, Charlotte “Cat” Murphy created a costume inspired by the movie Blade Runner, re-envisioning traditional Japanese clothing with a futuristic edge. But, because it was for Asheville Community Theatre’s Costume Drama: A Fashion Show — a contest that asks designers to focus on creativity over practicality by using unconventional materials such as feathers, flowers, paper and inflatables — Murphy’s costume incorporated found objects and LED lights, which she hand-sewed into the dress, headpiece and a parasol.

This year, Murphy will enter a piece in the revisionist history category. “I wanted to do Victorian underclothes as outer clothes, exposing the architecture of Victorian clothing,” she says. “I started with the hoop skirt. Traditionally, they are actually made out of wicker, and I’ve never worked with wicker. … It’s still honoring the past but then reimagining it in a different way.”

On Friday, July 6, the seventh annual Costume Drama will take place at the newly renovated Asheville Community Theatre. The first such event was staged at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, and subsequent iterations of the fashion show were also held at that location because it offered more space than the local theater. But, with renovations complete at ACT, “I am really motivated by the idea of bringing people back to the theater so they can see what this show is for,” says Costume Drama director Sara Field.

She also says that the newly remodeled ACT now features a runway, which will allow the models to walk out into the audience and give everyone a better view of the costumes.

Though Costume Drama is now a mainstay of the Asheville fashion scene, Field says that in 2012, when it was introduced, ACT had fears that the event might never reach fruition. “We put the announcement out there, and it was crickets for a little bit,” says Field. “Then one bigger Asheville designer joined, and everybody else followed suit.”

Even as interest from designers grew, the reaction from the public remained uncertain. “When we first started this event, we weren’t quite sure what we had on our hands — what the ultimate turnout would be,” says Field. “We actually sold the tickets for $10 apiece because we really wanted to make it accessible and available to everyone who could come. We just didn’t know if anybody was going to be interested.”

It turns out people were very interested. The first year, 40 designers had costumes modeled in front of a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.

“I was backstage the whole time praying it would go well,” Field recalls. “And then it was over, and I looked out into the crowd, and people were just going bananas.”

Costume Drama sold out every year since then, raising standard ticket prices to $50 to increase the production budget for the show. This year’s iteration will be a smaller, more exclusive show, with 20 designers competing instead of the usual 40. “We wanted the designers on the runway to get more time and exposure instead of having the show feel rushed,” says Field.

The 2018 categories are paper, light, revisionist history and hardware. (While some categories carry over from year to year, others come and go. Past groups included nature, transformation and artistic license.) Potential designers were asked to submit portfolios and fill out an application explaining their concept before selection.

Designer T.M. Ellis is returning to the paper category. She won Best in Show in 2016 with a dress made out of shredded and folded pages from her favorite books. But, she admits, this year she has found the design process a bit more challenging.

“I’ve changed the design like two or three times. I know I’m using coffee filters and deli wax paper sheets and tissue paper,” she says. “I’m using Jacquard pigment dye. Usually, I use really natural colors, but I think part of my roadblock right now is I need to do vibrant colors, and I don’t know how to function very well with those.”

But those struggles won’t be apparent to viewers. “A lot of the audience members tend to miss the fine details, and they don’t know how long it takes,” says Ellis. “They just see it and are like, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful.’”

She continues, “Everyone is going to the very end. No one is happy or done with their work until they can’t work on it anymore. Once they can’t physically touch [the model], that’s when it’s finally over.”

Murphy says she expects to be working on her entry up until the last minute because the creative process is full of setbacks, discoveries and surprises. “There’s a chance I may have shot myself in the foot a little. I’m not sure [the costume] will fit in the car anymore,” she says, then adds, “Luckily, wicker is really bendy.”

WHAT: Costume Drama: A Fashion Show
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St.
WHEN: Friday, July 6. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. $75 preferred seating/$50 general admission


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