Hand sewing hundreds of fish “scales” onto a waistcoat, making a post-apocalyptic costume out of curtains and having to think about fake blood stains on material are just some of the work challenges faced by Enken Hagge, the wardrobe supervisor at the State Theatre Company.
Enken Hagge had done two undergraduate degrees, in media and arts, and had started an honors degree in English Literature when she suddenly realised she would spend most of her life “writing essays that no one would see”.
That realisation was the catalyst for the 34-year-old to pursue a whole new career, based on her love of sewing.
“I’d always liked sewing as a hobby but I have little interest in commercial fashion, so I had no idea how to make it a career until I found out about the Diploma of Costume Construction at AC Arts, which sadly no longer exists,” she says.
While completing her diploma, Enken managed to find work on some feature films and TV shows being filmed in Adelaide and also did work experience at State Theatre Company on a show called Three Sisters.
“From there on I was employed casually until I finally joined the State Theatre family in 2014,” she says.
Enken’s daily routine involves working closely with a production’s costume designer interpreting their designs and deciding what parts of the costume need to be handmade and what can be sourced or bought.
“A lot of my job involves finding bits and pieces of a costume out in the ‘real world’ and bringing everything together,” she says.
“I also source all the fabrics for the sewing room, shoes and accessories. Essentially, a designer shows me their dream costume and I work out how to make it a reality.
“So imagine we need a ladies’ Victorian era outfit consisting of a skirt, blouse, hat, shoes and undergarments.
“I might buy the fabric for the blouse in a local fabric shop, purchase the trims online, find an appropriate skirt in our vast State Theatre store that we can alter and use again and make a new corset from scratch to fit the actor.
“The shoes I might also find in a vintage shop, or source online.
“The hat base might be vintage but we can re-decorate and trim it to suit. Often I buy fabrics from all over Australia and worldwide.”
Being able to bring a simple costume sketch to life and see it work well on stage is the most rewarding aspect of the job for Enken.
“I love getting a design that looks impossible to pull off and then making it a reality,” she says.
“The most challenging part is realising a costume design that may look pretty as a sketch, but would not be appropriate onstage – for example, where a designer has drawn a female character in a slinky, restrictive dress and high heels although her role requires lots of physical action on an uneven stage.
“In that case it’s a delicate negotiation between the designer, the actor and myself to get to a final design that everyone loves.”
A typical day for Enken involves doing fittings with the actors and the designer first thing, then there is usually sourcing to be done, fabric buying and returning unwanted stock.
The best part is later in the day when she gets hands on, crafting costumes and accessories such as hats, bags or masks, or altering existing costumes.
Being able to problem solve creatively and thinking outside the box are key qualities of any wardrobe supervisor, says Enken, pointing out that costume making is very different to fashion design.
“Theatre is not the real world – clothes often have to do some interesting things,” she says.
“Our costumes need to withstand both rough treatment and action onstage as well as repeated laundering.
“They also need to accommodate things like quick changes (very fast changes of costume at the side of the stage) so we have tricks to make those possible.
“Also, actors might be dealing with things like fake blood onstage, so the fabrics that we use have to be appropriate. Anything we make ourselves is made to be as tough as possible to survive a season of a show!”
“For Masquerade (2015) I made a fish’s waistcoat which involved hundreds of individually sewn-on shimmery fabric scales.
“For Mr Burns (2017) I created a post-apocalyptic dress for Lisa Simpson that was made out of old curtains and that I embroidered with nuclear waste symbols.
“Sometimes the fabrics are silk, and sometimes we make very intricate costumes out of humble cloth – it takes an equal amount of time!”
Working with natural fabrics, especially linen and wool, is a highlight for Enken because they “behave” well under the sewing machine, are comfortable to wear and are long lasting.
“But there are now really interesting developments in thermoplastics – heat malleable sheets of plastic that can be bent and formed into any number of useful things like headpieces and armour,” she explains.
“I’m always finding new ways to use them.”
Enken says there is still so much to learn in her field, improving her skills and learning new techniques, and in the future she’d love to do more costume designing.
Not surprisingly her philosophy on life is “be curious, and never stop learning!”.