Costuming To Kill a Mockingbird

An Interview with Costume Designer, Ellen MacKay

Is this period—the 1930s, the Depression—a particularly difficult one to dress?

The difficulty of the 1930s is that it’s a period that we can’t readily shop. Clothes from the 1960s, 70s, and beyond are fairly easy to find at thrift stores, vintage stores and online retailers. But clothes from the 30s mainly have to be recreated; those that remain are generally too fragile to handle the wear and tear of a theatre run.

That said, Cardinal has put on a number of shows that take place in this period—The Grapes of Wrath, Annie, even The Sound of Music and The Diary of Anne Frank are quite close. So the Cardinal costume shop is quite well stocked with coveralls, drop- waisted dresses and hats for ladies and gentlemen alike. We were also fortunate that the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre generously opened its stock to us; several of the play’s key pieces are from its collection.

 

What were the challenges of costuming To Kill a Mockingbird?

Mary Badham as Scout the 1963 film of To Kill a Mockingbird

Well, one complexity is the influence of the iconic film. Since many audience members will conjure up Gregory Peck and Mary Badham when they think of Atticus Finch or Scout, any costuming decision must necessarily take those choices into account. For instance, when I went looking for glasses for Atticus to wear (generously supplied by Optiks, on the downtown square), there were frames named “Gregory Pecks” that were inspired by the ones the actor wore in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. The frames are lovely, but they read 1960s instead of 1930s, and for that reason we chose instead the circular wire frames he wears on stage.

 

Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch; the glasses frames are now iconic.

In other cases it was more obvious that we must deviate from the film’s precedent. Our Boo is 6’5”, and he cuts a very different figure from Robert Duvall, so it was not difficult for me to start from a blank slate. In trying to think through what a man who keeps indoors might look like, it occurred to me that it might be smart to fashion him in the image of the children he watches. He is a person in a state of arrested development, likely infantilized by his father, why not bring that out in his costume by dressing him like Scout and her brother, Jem? It helps, of course, that many of the men of the town wear overalls too—the choice doesn’t seem so outlandish.

Jean Louise’s dress, hand-sewn from the early 1960s.

Another figure that had no cinematic precursor was Jean Louise, Scout’s adult self and a stand-in for Harper Lee. We decided to dress her in clothes from the period of the novel’s publication—roughly 1960. But after looking at a number of Jackie O-shaped dress-suits, Randy found that the contrast between her look and that of the rest of the play was too strong. We chose to go instead with a 1960s dress in a color scheme fitting with the rest of the play, so that she is both within the world of Depression-era may comb and outside of it. Plus the subtle check of the dress picks up on the gingham that Scout wears with her overalls. We wanted to keep the link between those two characters subtly present in their clothing.

 

What was the most fun for you?

An illustration of children playing from the 1930s. One of the complexities of using illustrations like these as evidence is that they don’t relate very clearly to the look of a small Southern town in the Depression.

 

It’s always delightful to dress kids. Not only are they charming people and talented actors, they take great joy in dressing their parts. And the costumes really come to life on them, because kids scamper and jump around and fully enjoy the strangeness of becoming someone else. I particularly enjoyed putting Dill’s costume together. Randy wanted him to be an eccentric kid—part dreamer, part savant—and I got to thinking about what he might carry or wear that would bring those traits across. I particularly like his shirt with all the flags on it, and the raccoon tail pinned to his sweater vest. In my head, he has assembled his own uniform for a Scout troupe of his own invention.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring costume designers?

That you can never tell, really. Sometimes there are costumes you think you won’t have a hope of finding, and then they pop up in the first thrift store you enter. We have an actor with size 14 feet, and to my great surprise, I found a number of lovely size 14 shoes at the eastside Goodwill, as if they were waiting for me to come and find them. Then other, seemingly easier items become unexpectedly tricky—I spent some time looking for a brown bow tie, for instance. The hardest part is staying patient and keeping to your vision and not scrapping good ideas for the sake of expediency.

 

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