Book Review: Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design

by Natalie Robin
Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design from Focal Press
Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design from Focal Press

There is a glamour and an allure to anything “behind the scenes,” to seeing the magic of the theater unwind, unfold and uncovered.  Costume designer E. Shura Pollatsek and photographer Mitchell D. Wilson have given us a new glimpse behind the magic in Unbuttoned: The Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design. Beginning with the seed of the production and character idea and tracing the costuming process all the way through the creation of the look, Pollatsek has made visible the intricate and beautiful work happening just out of sight by focusing on the process rather than the product.

Pollatsek emphasizes the collaborative nature of the costume design and creation fields, featuring both designers and craftspeople. She has structured the book to follow the creative process through macro explanations and small interview-style essays featuring different individuals and their specialty or strength within the continuum. These essays and anecdotes are paired with exquisite detailed photographs of artists and artisans at work, sharing with the reader the tiniest details. Unlike clothes, costumes are individualized, handmade objects, crafted not just for a specific character, but for a specific performer. Costumes also require efficiency of time and money, ingenuity in “quick rigging” or alterations, delicacy of detail and scale to be seen from far away. The interviews with all of the people who might handle a garment speak for themselves and deftly introduce so much of the nuance embedded in the work.

There is a sweet combination of the personal with the professional throughout Pollatsek’s text. She stresses the humanity in performance, in storytelling and in costuming. And the equal prominence she places on both the dreamers and the makers further humanizes the process. Pollatsek also uses this structure as a teaching tool: in order to talk about sourcing fabrics, why not tell an anecdote about a shopper buying fabric to recreate Santo Loquasto’s designs? And from there, why not introduce all of the people who might work in or run a fabric store? Why not introduce the importance of a draper through the explanation of a fitting gone slightly awry? This prologue is followed by a lovely series of close-up photographs of hands working, garment details and serious conversations in progress. Pollatsek also introduces the custom work in costume design: fabric embellishment (with tantalizing photos of painting and beadwork), crafts and millinery (feathers and hat forms galore!) and wigs and hair. It seems as though no step or artist is left out.

A lot of the focus of the text is on ballet and opera because the budgets and shop structure allows for so much more detail work. Shopping a contemporary drama just doesn’t involve as many steps or as many people. But Pollatsek has framed her project to reveal the whole progression and more about the different processes of different kinds of productions might have been useful.

Somewhere between a coffee table book and a textbook, Unbuttoned is a kind of guidebook through the costume design process with (almost) all the stops along the way. It could serve as a lovely supplementary text for a student or a holiday gift for the curious observer.

About the Authors

E. Shura Pollatsek is a professional costume designer for stage and screen, an Associate Professor of Costume Design and Technology, and an award-winning author of several nationally published articles. She designs costumes for performances across the United States and internationally, and for National PBS television and Showtime. During a decade based in New York City, she worked for Off Broadway and Broadway productions, the Metropolitan Opera, and at many leading regional theaters.

Mitch Wilson is a National Press Photographer of the Year winner, who travels the world capturing time and place in stills and motion. His work has also been recognized with Primetime Emmys, both the DuPont Columbia Award and the Peabody for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, two International Documentary Association Awards for Best Documentary Series, and many others. He began his career as a Combat Cameraman and underwater photographer in the elite Combat Camera Group of the U.S. Navy.

For more information, please visit shuracostumedesign.com and mitchelldwilson.com