The Gilded Cage

by Lisa Mulcahy
Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in The Other Mozart
Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in The Other Mozart

Origami, tulle and metaphor create a dress that is costume, cage and set piece in The Other Mozart

The Other Mozart by Sylvia Milo tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s unsung sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia (nicknamed Nannerl), a musical virtuoso in her own right. Nannerl is held back from succeeding in music because of her gender, caged in by the expectations and requirements of women at the time. For the play, Milo and her costume designers Magdalena Dabrowska and Miodrag Guberinic wanted to create an opulent yet functional outfit that was true to the period—and subtext of the piece—yet yet could still travel easily. They ended up creating a beautiful dress with an 18-foot diameter skirt and panniers that functions not only as costume and the only set for the play—but still folds down into a standard-sized suitcase for touring.

“I wanted to be able to easily tour with the play—a full theatrical production which fits into one suitcase, under 50 pounds!” says Milo.

Dabrowska was responsible for the dress and fabric design. Her approach was twofold. “The most important thing for me was for the dress to also become the set, for there to be nothing else on the stage,” she explains. “It became apparent that it must be large, then cease to just be a dress, to become a living space for Nannerl. I cared very much while creating the first model of the dress about emphasizing the character of the period, using simple geometric elements. Another task was to hide in the folds of the dress all the necessary props—from a fan and teacup to a small piano! Most ended up hidden in pockets sewn to the inside of the dress. Others were placed in pocket-cone attachments on the outside.” 

Magdalena Dabrowska’s sketches and instructions for building the dress.
Magdalena Dabrowska’s sketches and instructions for building the dress.

Next was making the dress compact. “It was necessary to consider how to cleverly fold and pack this mountain of material, to then just as quickly unpack and unfold it onstage,” Dabrowska continues. To do this, she came up with two specific elements of the dress’s construction.  “The first model of the dress I designed consisted of two independent parts—the primary skirt, which adjoins directly to the waist and a second part of the fabric. The second element would be normally pleated and sewn in the form of ruffles to the primary skirt. However, after creasing, the dress could not be packed into a suitcase.  So a narrow duct was made with a band, which could be gathered and stretched to smoothly fold into a suitcase. The result is an ecru skirt in the shape of a circle with a clasp on the back, with a diameter of 18 feet, with radially spaced pockets.” 

Dabrowska then added the key elements that would cover props while showing off the rich opulence of the dress.  To do this, “I constructed a folded, sewn fabric, reminiscent of origami—reinforced with stitching, this design folded into a small, flat square, and when unfolded, became a solid, rich form,” she details. “I used ruffles made from a woven base fabric and tulle, which, when adequately lit, gives extraordinary results.” 

The dress during a fitting.
The dress during a fitting.

Guberinic was responsible for the dress’s elegant, cage-like panniers and corset sculpture. “Mozart’s sister was mentally and physically restricted because she was a woman—we wanted to evoke that emotion of being trapped, but still have a regal look, while referencing period silhouette,” he says. “Beautiful yet confined. So after I made a few sketches, I made a first mock-up out of soft corset boning. We had to make things breakable, again so the panniers could travel—the panniers are made in 3 pieces.  They easily fit in one suitcase with the skirt.” 

Milo—and audiences—were delighted with the end result. “The dress and the panniers create the image of the opulent beauty and grandeur of the period, reflecting the overwhelming restrictions placed upon women,” she summarizes—a perfect example of design and function completing each other.