If you go
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Who: Naples Players presentation of the Oscar Wilde farce
Where: Sugden Community Theatre, 701 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 15
Admission: $30, $10 for students 18 and younger
Reservations: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at box office; by phone, 263-7990; or online, www.naplesplayers.org
NAPLES — The 15th century had the cultural Renaissance.
The 20th century had the technological revolution.
Only the 19th century, however, had The Look.
In the fussy, frothy couture of the Victorian era, people could make a statement just by entering the room. For the Naples Players’ production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” that “I dress, therefore I am” assertiveness has been channeled elegantly through costume designer Dot Auchmoody and her volunteer seamstresses.
Auchmoody recreated its crackling — literally — energy in the tulle-poufed leg o’ mutton sleeves; piped, embroidered jackets with lapels as wide as dinner napkins; rose-strewn, sweeping skirts; vests with hand-turned pockets; and enough ruffles to dress a corps de ballet.
And then there are the hats. Mark Vanagas, Auchmoody’s husband, created millinery with the same delicious abundance; it’s feathered, fruited, sweeping architecture that would stop a Derby horse. Vanagas, who also plays one of the central characters in the Oscar Wilde farce, even gets his own top hat, complete with mourning ribbons.
The front line for this sartorial splendor has been a troop of 12 community volunteers. They created their own merlot bias tape, sewed on antique laces from a bucketload of donated frills and set in hook-and-eye closures and buttons. And buttons. And more buttons.
Auchmoody stretched all their abilities for this wardrobe. She issued 120-year-old laces, white cotton and patterns to Lois Monterosso to create a befrilled white shirtwaist.
“She trusted me!” marvels Monterosso. After nearly two seasons sewing for the theater, Monterosso made sure it was trust well bestowed, but reflects credit back to Auchmoody. “Dot was always available if we wanted help. She was there if I needed her.”
Often, muslin starter patterns had to be fitted directly to the actors, and silk linings built from them for sophisticated pieces such as jackets. Lady Bracknell, the play’s matriarch, gets the lioness’s share of attention, wearing contrived pieces suited to her tsunami bearing. One of them, a ruched burgundy silk capelet, has a double gathered neck and a silk lining with three rows of stiff ruffles. The audience sees it for a total of five seconds, mourns Mary Jones, a nine-year volunteer who loves the work — even though she teases Auchmoody that she only sews pieces that don’t rate stage time.
“We’re always giving each other a hard time,” Jones says. “At first she told me I would have to sew pearls on each one of the ruches in that piece.”
The costumers benefitted from the largesse of a drapery store that gave them remnant fabric bolts of lining material. The lace donor provided true antique pieces that had to be handled with care. The 120-year-old lace that was to become a jabot was so delicate Stephanie Fowle had to encase it in nylon netting to work with it: “We were putting our hands through it when we worked on it.”
Suzanne Goudeau had one of the most laborious of the jobs, however, and it was of her own choosing. She wanted an exact shade of burgundy to pipe Lady Bracknell’s country jacket. So she made her own tape, cutting the silk on a 45-degree angle to its threads and folding it into bias tape. Then she piped the entire jacket, with hand stitching to on its exterior to create invisible seams. “It took me three hours,” she says, but she’s smiling.
The most grueling chores were the most repetitive: applying hooks and eyes, of which the women’s jackets had 24 each. “That’s the hard work — the things that nobody sees,” observed Pat Supplitt, a nine-year veteran of the wardrobe room.
“This is why the people of that society had servants — to help them get into those clothes. They couldn’t dress themselves,” explained Auchmoody. But, she and several of the volunteers said, these costumes were made to fit their wearers well: “The clothes themselves are surprisingly comfortable.”
To keep the actresses mindful of their Victorian bearing, Auchmoody added that essential of Gibson Girl dressing: corsets. Steel-framed corsets with shoelaced fronts. Seamstresses Bonnie Heck and Cynthia Haas roll their eyes at the thought: Sewing on hooks and eyes suddenly seems a minor inconvenience.
Auchmoody is a student of fashion whose costuming inspirations for “Earnest” ranged back to turn-of-the-century Harper’s Bazaar magazines. Sometimes she combined patterns, passing on three to the courageous seamstress who could create a hybrid piece. She did have some sympathetic help from Kathleen Kolacz, an eight-year volunteer here who also designs costumes for Theatrezone.
Even the men’s clothing created waves: “Just one vest had 12 buttons,” explains Stephanie Fowle, holding up a baby blue-lime-and-yellow striped piece. Fowle, a 6½ year volunteer with Naples Players, created an entire vest, right down to hand-finished, bias-trimmed pockets. But she admits she passed the button chores to another volunteer.
They all have seen “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Some of them went twice: They admit that the first time they spent most of the play assessing their costumes.
“I get very emotional when I see the costumes during the play,” concedes Jones. “We’ve all been working together on those costumes, and we have such camaraderie. We’re a family.”