Haute Speaker Recap: Costume Designer Frances McSherry

By Sarah Darrow
Photos: Nora McBurnett, Stephanie Zhang

On Tuesday, November 13, Haute Fashion had the pleasure of hearing from Frances McSherry. McSherry is a professor of Theatre Design and the costume designer here at Northeastern University. She teaches various classes including Theatrical Design, Costume Design, Costume Construction, Makeup Design and a new class this coming spring called The Evolution of Fashion and Costume. In this class, students will have the opportunity to learn about fashion from Ancient Greece all the way to the 21st century with special emphasis focused on the works of designers like Dior, Alexander McQueen, and Chanel.

McSherry, however, did not begin her career in costume design as a teacher. She actually began with dreams of being a sculptor. “That was my mission, I loved three dimensional art. So I got [to college] and I spent about two years figuring out, well that wasn’t really of any interest to me.” After she realized that sculpting was not the career path for her, she ended up spending two years working in the costume shop. She did not, however, become a costume designer overnight. After realizing that she needed more practice and education in costume design, she attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a three-year Master of Fine Arts program. “I barely survived. It was brutal, but I made it through,” she said of the experience.

After this challenging but rewarding experience, McSherry ended up working in New York for ten years and became a co-owner of a costume shop. “We built costumes for theatre, opera, music videos, commercials, pageants–whatever came along, we built.” They also constructed costumes for dance pieces as well. Throughout her time as a partial costume shop owner, she also did freelance work, which she continues to do. Nine years ago, McSherry heard about a job at Northeastern University and decided to apply. Along with doing freelance work, she decided she might enjoy teaching costume design and telling people more about what she does.

One question that she posed to the group was “how would costume design be different from fashion design?” One response we heard was that costume design is used for more specific purposes, specifically the particular production being worked on. Another response included that the difference is that costume design has less and more limitations. In some ways, costume design allows you to go overboard with the design, but the limitations come with the specificity of the design for a specific production. While these were both accurate answers, McSherry added that there is much more history involved in costume design. Even though there are plenty of modern dress plays, she tends to enjoy designing for more period pieces. “I think it’s more interesting to delve into more of the history and try to analyze that and figure out how to pull that research together into a cohesive look for the show,” she said.

After McSherry told us a bit about costume design and how she got started, she took us through a PowerPoint of some of her work. We got to see a sampling of her professional works, some of which included plays and musicals such as Rent, A Christmas Carol, Eurydice and Cabaret. Some of the plays she has designed for at Northeastern include A Long Christmas Ride Home, which involved not only costumes but also the creation of puppets, and Learned Ladies, which is a period piece set in the mid 17th century and involved a lot of corsets.

Because theatre designers’ communication is very dependent on drawing and visuals, she led us into a sketching activity following the PowerPoint. To my surprise, the body is about 7 ½ heads long, but a fashion body is lengthened to about 9 heads long. Once you’ve got your basic figure drawn, you can go back and smooth everything out. If you missed the meeting, you can take a look at this video and learn how to draw the 9 head figure.

Did you enjoy this speaker? Let us know what you thought, or who you’d like to hear from next.

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