The Rep’s Dorothy Marshall Englis: Honoring Hamlet with High Fashion

Shocking news! The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has never staged Hamlet—until now. Of all the people associated with the show, I was most intrigued to speak to the person in charge of dressing the Bard’s characters. The theatre gods smiled on me and granted me an audience with Dorothy Marshall Englis. I talked to the talented designer about her history, her inspiration, and her challenges in creating the costumes for this iconic production. If her creations are as colorful and brilliant as she is, St. Louis is in store for a spectacular Shakespearean showdown.

Jim Ryan: What path led you to be a costume and scenic designer?

Dorothy Marshall Englis: Okay, wow. The brief history of my career: I started—oh my, this is going to sound so geeky—I started making clothes for my dolls when I was a little girl. My mother made a lot of my clothes growing up, and she made a lot of my brother’s clothes, so I kind of came by it naturally. Then of course when I got old enough to actually understand a pattern, I started making my own clothes. Then in high school, I started doing theater, and costuming, and acting. Then when I went to college I totally decided to quit theater cold turkey and work on my English degree because I thought, “Oh my god. There’s no way to make a living [in theater].” So I did that for about a year and then I guess I was so bored that I went screaming back to the theater. I thought I was going to be a high school drama teacher, to be honest.

I guess my senior year of college one of my professors pulled me aside and pointed out that I’ve been costuming most of the student-produced stuff, and they said I just need training. I was really lucky they spotted this—they said I was a mediocre actor, but I had really great instincts about character, which is really part of being a good costume designer. They encouraged me to apply to grad school, so I double majored in English and theater—in drama at Tufts—and then I went to Carnegie Mellon University and got my MFA in costume design.

I didn’t know you could get an MFA in costume design. Who knew? I taught at Tulane for two years and then I came to St. Louis in 1979. It was a joint position at that point between the Rep and the Conservatory and that was really appealing to me.

I think what made it attractive to me is that as a costumer, I get to play in a lot of different playpens. I love clothing, I do, and I love characters. You know, characters are so much fun. I love theatre, I love history, and I love art. So I’m researching, I’m drawing, I’m realizing character, I’m working with actors, I’m making clothes and then I started to do a little scenery on the side, but scenery has always been less distinctive for me. It’s more left brain for me the right brain and costumes is kind of a right brain activity for me.

How long have you been collaborating with The Rep?

I’ve been with The Rep since 1979. It’s like 38 years or something—I’ll let you do the math and check me on that. I can’t do more than a yard of fabric. My math is all about 1/8 inch, ¾ inch, three feet and a yard.

Generally speaking, where do you draw your inspiration for your creations from?

It really depends completely on the piece. I mean, when we were doing A Christmas Carol I was inspired by etchings from London. For Hamlet, the director wanted to explore something that is modern, timeless and period. It’s the same director that I worked on Macbeth with a few years ago and we had modernized the medieval costumes with that show. I think it’s always a wonderful journey just to try to figure out what elements echo from period to period. And I think being experienced at this makes me not feel so intimidated by period pieces. Although, when we did The Winslow Boy, it was absolutely a period piece with no whimsy and no modernization because it was about that time and about that place.

But for Hamlet, I started actually looking at modern. So for this piece, Hamlet is kind of Elizabethan medieval in its original genesis. I’ve done a production Hamlet for the Shakespeare Festival a few years ago and that was a very clean period piece. The thing that always struck me about Hamlet, as a play, is he’s in a very formal place where’s he’s expected to act a certain way and then he doesn’t act that way. And yet the very people who are telling him about this formality and how to act are not all acting very well either. It’s a question of artifice versus truth and that’s part of what his journey is about.

When a director wants to consider some modern elements, I actually start with runway stuff from the last five years. I guess for me, runway fashion is like the court fashion of today. You watch those people come down the runway and you know 80% of what they’re showing in the high fashion runway shows is fantasy and it’s kind of, architecturally, an old view of clothing. But I thought that would be great for Hamlet so I started there and I became very attached to and inspired by the work of the designer named Gareth Pugh. He’s doing this amazing kind of mashup, borrowing from five different periods. I was really inspired by his kind of collaging of five different types of periods.

So we’re kind of collaging modern with Victorian with elements of the medieval and 18th century. It’s an interesting mélange—the men’s clothing is very formal and highly embellished. The women are what I would call more like award show gowns, but I’m taking a fairly voluminous approach. There are only two women characters in Hamlet. There’s not a huge range of expression character-wise, in that sense. There’s a lot of men, so you have a lot of variety of menswear to choose from, but really in Hamlet, you’ve got Gertrude and Ophelia and then we have some ladies-in-waiting. It’s a highly decorative court fashion so I guess overall what I was inspired by with the notion of what elements carry over from period to period and what will give this a formality that is enough removed from the reality of what the modern audience wears that it will have that sense of court.

Where do you source your materials for costumes for Hamlet? Is there a Ye Olde Fabric Shop?

There used to be. When I came here in 1979, St. Louis had many, many fabric stores that had both what I would call the current fabrics but also real fine dressmakers’ fabric. Eunice Farmer had a place in Ladue and there was Winston’s, originally in Plaza Frontenac. They were two of what I would call the higher end fashion shops where they actually had the materials and silks, and real linens, and cottons. We also go to Hancock Fabrics, which I think has become an increasingly populist fabric place, but still has enough good basic materials. You know, sometimes we use actual drapery fabrics for costume period costume pieces.

But now I find there are very few fabric stores in St. Louis that sell a wide range of silks that is velvet and velveteen; and raw silk; and silk satin; and silk mixed with wool. Very few people have pure linen anymore. And no one carries suiting really, to speak of, in a place where you can walk down the aisles and touch it like I used to be able to do Winston’s. It does make me sad because I firmly believe that since we are a regional theater, we should buy local and for years, I bought all my shows locally. But now, online shopping has also changed the way people shop.

So you get you can get the little glowing square of fabric on your computer screen but that doesn’t tell you what it feels like it when you’re going to put fabric on an actor. I really want to know what it feels like and how it hangs and what does it look like thirty feet away.

I think ever since we did The Winslow Boy, I’ve actually been going to the garment district in New York for shopping. I’ve shopped a few shows in Chicago as well, but even in New York their garment district is shrinking. But at least there are enough stores I can walk down the rows and I can touch the fabric, I can feel it, and I can see what the texture is, and I can feel how it hangs.

So that’s what we do now. For Hamlet, I flew in on a Thursday morning, I met a former student of mine who became my assistant for my trip, and on we went to all the different fabric stores on Thursday night and Friday, and then I got back on a plane and flew home Sunday. I think by the time I eventually retire, I don’t know that you’ll actually be able to go to New York and buy fabric anymore—we’ll be trying to do it all online.

How many costumes did you have to manufacture for Hamlet?

We may be building about 40 pieces. It’s one of those productions where we sit down and we try to figure out what things are we absolutely for sure can’t find and then we start. We also pull from our stock as well.

What was your biggest challenge design for this show?

The biggest challenge is in creating my own rules for what the world is. When you do a straight period show, you just say, “Well here’s what the rules of the period are, here’s the silhouette, here’s the kind of trends.” When you have to create your own period you have to back up and create the rules before you can actually design the show.

What do you do with all the costumes once the show ends?

We keep them. [laughs] Sometimes we will borrow things from other people’s stock so we do return those. But things that we make for ourselves, we will put in our warehouse and they will find a life in other Rep productions. They will be rented or they will be borrowed by other companies or entities.

“The biggest challenge is in creating my own rules for what the world is.”

It was kind of interesting—we went to the St. Louis Critics Circle awards and I was looking at some of the pieces from all the productions and I was like, “Oh, that’s from our production and that’s from our production.” The Rep becomes a really great resource for a lot of theaters in town for costumes and props. Of course the other thing too is we have a budget. However much you can pull from your own storage, well, that’s money you can spend on fewer costumes to make them more lush.

Are you designing any other shows for this season of The Rep?

Yes. I’m also doing The Marvelous Wonderettes. It’s such a cute piece and the scale of it is so different because it’s only eight costumes. Plus, I know all the songs because I lived them.  I’m excited about the director, Melissa Rain Anderson, who I know having worked with in the Conservatory. She’s a fabulous director and her husband Jim Poulos is playing Hamlet so it’s a family affair. Then I’m going to do The Humans,  which is directed by Steve Woolf.

What do you get out of the design process? What is the payoff for you?

Oh gosh. Well, it’s in the creation. I think my acting teacher was quite right. I enjoy making tangible things. We [The Rep] have exquisite drapers, and tailors, and craftspeople who make my little pictures come alive. There’s that exact moment in a fitting when you put the garment on the actor and it works. It’s like the idea made flesh. The costumes are like the setting for a little jewel—you want the actors to shine, not the costume. But every now and then there’s a piece where you know you’re doing something definitely respectable and you can see the audience kind of take it all in. There is a huge emotional satisfaction in realizing that four months ago you had a blank piece of white paper and pencil and now look what you have. It’s like all these little people I drew are now three-dimensional, living, breathing characters thanks to the actors. I love actors, they are the best.

Do your friends beg you for Halloween costumes?

They know better, but my husband and daughter do. I have to say, before I got married, I avoided Halloween like the plague. But when I got a family, it was fun making costumes for them. It’s really hard when I go to a costume party because I have to like, shine. I can’t show up in something that isn’t clever.

If you could design the costumes for any show what would it be?

I’ve been really lucky, I’ve designed a lot of my bucket list shows which may say something about my use-by date. I would love to do King Lear someday; I would love to do The Elephant Man. I just think that is such a beautiful story. I admire the work of so many other wonderful designers. Oh! For years, I wanted to do A Little Night Music and then I did it so I had to take it off my list. That is my favorite musical in the entire world. I’d like to do Gigi maybe; I guess I kind of like some of the old war horse musicals. They’re kind of fun. And you know I love Shakespeare. Throw me out of Shakespeare anytime and I’m thrilled at doing that type of work. | Jim Ryan

Hamlet plays from October 11- November 5th. Please visit for show times and ticket prices.

You can follow me on Twitter @TheJimRyan.

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