ROCK SPRINGS—Working on “My Fair Lady” is “a costume designer’s dream” that has become a velvet-trimmed reality for Dennis Hassan, the Utah State University professor who is working as the costume designer for Western Wyoming Community College’s latest musical.
Dennis is a Professor of Scene Design at USU and has designed more than 150 professional productions for organizations such as the Old Lyric Repertory Company, Hale Center Theatre, Utah Festival Opera Company, and more. Now he is partnering with WWCC and switching his focus from scenes to costumes.
“My Fair Lady” is, according to Dennis, a huge show with huge costumes. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the clothing needs to be historically accurate. The story is set in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank and not long before World War I began. Dennis noted that this is the same year that the first season of the TV series “Downton Abbey” takes place, so he rewatched the show to get some inspiration for his designs.
Fittingly, costume preparations began last summer in the city where the story is set—London, England. Because Dennis was already spending his summer in London, he took the opportunity to begin shopping for costume pieces in the fabric district there. Buying from London allowed Dennis to get quality fabrics at a better price than he could have found locally. He bought a great deal of lace and velvet in particular, then packed the fabric in several large suitcases to fly it back home.
Back in the states, Dennis set to work designing and creating the costumes, beginning as early as August. In addition to the London fabrics, other materials were purchased from fabric stores and even thrift stores in Utah and Wyoming to bring the costumes together. While a few dresses were purchased and altered, the vast majority of the show’s costumes were made from scratch.
What many people may not realize is the number of costumes required for a show of this size. Dennis estimated that there are over 100 costumes in the show. Each individual actor has four to five costumes they wear and switch between. Dennis explained that the show requires special creativity so that actors can transition between characters and scenes quickly. He noted that sometimes to make this happen, an actor will wear a flower girl dress underneath a velvet opera cape.
One costume piece that stands out in “My Fair Lady” is the hats. During a scene at the end of Act One, the characters attend a horse race where the women wear huge, elaborate hats. All the hats in the show, many of which also include an attached wig, were made from scratch. Dennis stretched his arms out wide while trying to describe just how massive some of the hats are, saying that in many cases they’re “almost as big as the girls” who are wearing them.
For Dennis, costumes are one of the most important elements in a play, integral to the storytelling and the portrayal of the characters. “[Costumes] define the characters,” he explained. This play focuses on Eliza Doolittle, who goes from a poor flower girl to an elegant lady. Dennis pointed out that “each costume shows the change in her character.” She goes from a poor, dirty, uneducated flower girl; to trying too hard to be a grand lady—becoming gaudy and ostentatious; to actually becoming a woman of genuine elegance and class.
This play focuses on how the way a person speaks can alter society’s perceptions of them. Dennis pointed out that this same concept is reflected in the clothes a person wears. He also said that even the words a character says can have different meanings depending on what that person is wearing as they say them. In this way, Dennis believes that the costumes carry even more significance than the words themselves.
In order for the elaborate costumes in “My Fair Lady” to bring the story to life on the stage, Dennis has worked with a number of people. “There’s always a whole team,” he explained. Primarily he has worked with Debbie Alvarez from WWCC’s costume shop and her team of student workers. He expressed his gratitude over their dedication and the long, hard hours they have put towards this show. “There are great people here,” he said of Western.
Debbie also expressed her gratitude for Dennis and for her student workers. She said that the girls who work for her go above and beyond, often volunteering their personal time to ensure things get done. She is also extremely thankful for Dennis giving so much of his own time and resources for the show. Because he lives in Logan, Utah, he has had to make several trips back and forth to Rock Springs, and has been staying even longer to be on hand all throughout opening week. Debbie said that she is grateful that Dennis has shared his wisdom, knowledge and experience with WWCC for this production.