My outfit has secrets!

Have a quick change story? A different definition of rigged costumes? Join the conversation!

Theatre is all about illusion. A costume designer’s main job is to imagine clothing that serves not only the character, but also helps tell the story. Sometimes he or she works with the wardrobe staff to build clothes that look normal on the outside, but are secretly rigged costumes.. A rigged costume is designed with special tailoring to meet the specific needs of the production.

Costumes can be rigged for many reasons. Usually, it has to do with something unexpected or surprising, or to help with a “quick change”—a lightning-fast apparel switch—so that the actor and the wardrobe crew don’t lose precious seconds fiddling with buttons, tucking in shirttails, retying shoelaces, and unhitching belts.

That might mean adding a hidden zipper, sewing pants and trousers together into a single unit, lining a jacket with fabric to make it completely reversible, or even creating a top that flips down in the blink of an eye to become a skirt.

Thanks to clever rigging, some quick changes happen right in front of the audience. In the recent Broadway production of Sister Act, Officer “Sweaty” Eddie Souther unexpectedly steps out of his police uniform in the middle of a musical number to reveal a sparkly tux underneath. It’s a neat theatrical device that reveals the inner pizazz beneath his nerdy exterior. And then, in a spectacular theatrical coup, a second costume change gives this piece of stagecraft an additional storytelling twist.

So, what’s the secret? Rigging techniques sometimes include hidden wires that stiffen sleeves and collars, and sometimes clasps and buttons are just for show, with a magnet or zipper tucked inside to hold the garment together.

Or let’s say you want your hunky leading man to rip open his shirt like Clark Kent morphing into Superman, but without buttons flying all over the stage. Sew in a few carefully hidden strips of Velcro, and voila! A rigged costume that creates theatrical magic.

Here’s an interview with a pair of dressers speaking about rigged costumes and quick changes in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep at Chicago’s Court Theatre.

– Ben Pesner

This video was made by Theatre Development Fund, and it was filmed on location at the Snapple Theater Center.

Here’s the team:

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