Using costume to tell a story, sharing the story a costume has to tell . . .
My name is Arden Kirkland, and I am a costume storyteller.
I think it was about 1991 when I first came up with the idea of a “costume storyteller.” I can picture it handwritten on the page of the notes for the show I was designing at the time. My costume design career and I were both pretty young at that point, and I was defining just what it was I wanted to do – as I still am today.
Lately, when people ask me what I do, either a long list ensues (costume designer, clothing designer, costume historian, costumer, teaching artist, costume shop supervisor, historic costume collection curator, draper, pattern-maker, dressmaker, seamstress, costume digitization specialist) or I simply choose one based on who’s asking. But in the past month I suddenly remembered that phrase I had coined so many years ago, and wondered if that might sum up all that I am doing.
So, what do I mean by “costume storyteller?”
Well, when I first wrote those words, it was in the context of costume design. I was struggling with a play that I loved, and wondering how the costumes could really help to tell the story, to convey the emotion that already existed so strongly in the text.
In the years that followed, especially as my design work turned to dance, I continued to explore this idea of non-verbal storytelling. How can visual cues, movement, etc., tell a story without words? I was amazed to find that sometimes the story they told was much more powerful than the verbal one.
As I teach about clothing design and construction, I pass on the skills that let my students use clothing to tell their own stories. My own youthful interest in clothing design was born out of a desire for my appearance to express my creativity and ideas. Whoever you’re dressing, yourself or a character on stage, you have a unique opportunity to say something without opening your mouth.
I also recently realized how strongly this connects to my work with costume history. When I have the opportunity to observe an actual historic garment, I listen very carefully to the story it has to tell me. It is a rich story, of who wore it, who made it, who bought it, who saved it all these years, and why. Over time I have developed my methodology in working with these objects, to start with the object itself before consulting text-based research. With each research project I develop my ability to listen more carefully and to translate the sensory story of the garment into a verbal story that others can learn from.
We all know something about costume, because we all wear it – most of us every day. Clothing is often dismissed as trivial, yet it speaks volumes about us and the culture we live in, as shaped by our society, politics, economy, and history.
Take a look – in the mirror, at the person across from you, at that old photo of your grandmother - and see the story that is told by what is worn.