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Character Builders   

author: Denise Rudnicki

designers 560

On set with two award-winning costume designers – Alex Reda and Joanne Hansen – who both rekindle their creative energy when at home in the Northumberland Hills

Inspector William Murdoch’s shoes pinch. They are carefully-crafted replicas of shoes made 115 years ago when feet were narrower than now. So the famous TV detective wears running shoes with his costume while shooting the first episode of the new season of Murdoch Mysteries in Port Hope. (It’s OK because his feet won’t show in this scene.)

As he waits, an extra receives her cue. Wearing a rose-coloured shawl and a straw hat with a pink bow over her high-necked white blouse and long skirt, she strolls along John Street. If her feet hurt, it doesn’t show. Behind her, two roughs lounge on a doorstep in their tattered suits and caps. A horse-drawn carriage clatters by and Port Hope becomes Toronto in the early years of the 20th Century.

You’re probably familiar with Murdoch Mysteries. It’s one of Canada’s most successful and longest-running dramas, soon to begin broadcasting Season 10. Fans love the stories of Detective Murdoch, who pioneers innovative forensic techniques to solve some of Toronto’s most gruesome murders. In fact, the show is now licensed to broadcast in 110 countries and reaches millions of homes around the world.

What you may not know is that the creative mind behind those period shoes and everything that flows up from them is costume designer Alex Reda, 52, who lives right here in Watershed country. And he’s not the only award-winning designer in the neighbourhood. Joanne Hansen, whose credits include Bomb Girls with Meg Tilly and Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys and who’s currently at work on a sci-fi series called The Expanse, recharges her batteries on a 50-acre property outside of Warkworth. Delphine White, designer of The Dovekeepers, Copper, Dream House and many more, can also be found in the Northumberland Hills.

Reda’s and Hansen’s productions are set over 300 years apart, one in Toronto in 1904 and the other in outer space 200 years from now. I visited them on set for a behind-the-scenes lesson on costume design and its crucial contribution to the believability – and success – of their shows.

When not on location, Murdoch Mysteries shoots in a refurbished warehouse off Warden Avenue in Toronto. That’s where I first meet Alex Reda, who’s been designing costumes for all 10 seasons.
Alex started as a fashion designer. “In fashion, you create your own vision. With costuming, you recreate characters,” says Alex. “This means finding the right hat or tie, or researching details like the correct pocket placement. What I strive for is authenticity.” As Alex says this, an assistant hands him a set of pearls and a pair of dove-grey gloves. He rolls the pearls through his fingers and looks distracted. I ask him what’s wrong.

“They look fake to me. I think I will try tea-dying them. It will make them look authentic.”
Alex is a meticulous researcher in his pursuit of perfect authenticity. He pores through old Eaton’s catalogues, looks at stock footage, old photos – any source that can help him be certain of how people actually dressed in the 1800s and 1900s. Still, it does not always come together as planned. “Once I let it out onto the set, I can’t control things any more,” he says. The hats may be the most maddening. “It drives me crazy sometimes,” he says. “I’ve seen hats worn backwards. It takes so much to create a look and it can fall apart so quickly.”

On the wall is an old medical poster showing how a woman’s body changes when laced into a corset. “Well, it does all start with the underpinnings,” he says as we tour the wardrobe room, with its racks of clothing – warm earth tones for the men’s costumes and soft pastels to rich jewel colours for the women’s. There are shelves of feathery hats, and bins of corsets and bum pads – to give skirts a fuller behind. “We build our own corsets,” says Alex. “The actresses have to relearn how to breathe. They can’t put their own shoes on.”

Shoes again. Apparently foot comfort is a major issue on set. This is confirmed when I meet Hélène Joy who plays the coroner and Murdoch’s wife, Dr. Julie Ogden. She is wearing Crocs under her costume. Like Yannick Bisson, who plays Murdoch, she wears replica shoes when she needs to walk in a scene. In this scene, she is sitting, and doesn’t need to think about her feet at all. Nor does she think about her corset, because she’s not wearing one. “I can’t breathe in a corset,” she says. “Alex finds ways to cut my clothes so that it looks as though I am wearing one – to give me that shape.”

I am curious about how the costume helps her create her character. “It is incredibly important,” she says. “In my normal life, I slouch around in loose clothing. In costume, I walk and stand differently. I become the character. It’s day and night.”

Today, she wears an off-white blouse made entirely of ribbon. “Alex’s attention to detail is extraordinary,” she says. “These clothes are all made for me. What he does from scratch blows my mind.” She points to her floor-length, blue skirt as an example. There is intricate pleating and button work below the knee and the fabric has a delicate pattern that I cannot imagine even shows on TV. “This is what I mean. The pleating, the buttons, it’s so elegant. Alex will make the skirt so there is a little kick at the bottom when I walk.”

She is called to the set for her scene. As she walks away I see that little kick at the bottom of her skirt. “Well,” says Alex when I ask about it, “You never know how a director may shoot. It could be close up, getting into a carriage. You lose so much detail on camera, it’s best to add more – to almost overdo it.”

Alex is a serious man, dedicated to his craft and indefatigable in his search for the special touches, no matter how small, that will make his costumes authentic. He could boast about his success, including his award for best costume design, but he chooses to let his costumes tell the story of what it is really like to be a designer.

Dr. Ogden’s wedding dress is a good example. Alex had just two weeks to design and build the dress, which Hélène wore in Season 8. He pored through images of wedding dresses from the period, choosing details he liked and designing several options. It is the executive producer and director who must approve all designs so there is little room for ego in Alex’s work. He creates only what is approved. It took 20 yards of ivory silk for the dress, another 30 for the veil, 700 pearls and as much vintage lace as he could find. Two builders worked full time to meet the deadline. It would have been enough to make one dress but he needed to make two. Dr. Odgen is in her wedding dress and on horseback in one scene, galloping after a murderer, and that required an identical dress for a stunt double.

The long hours of his job mean that Alex often spends the week in his apartment in Toronto. But weekends, he heads for his 60-acre farm just outside Port Hope that he shares with his partner, filmmaker Stephen Traynor. They bought the property 13 years ago. “It was nothing but farmer’s fields,” says Alex. They planted over 100 trees and made a series of perennial borders, which are Alex’s great joy. “It is so peaceful here. Such an alternative to what I do.”

The designer logs a lot of air miles, travelling to Los Angeles, Montreal and London in his search for vintage clothes, some of which the show rents. He haunts antique shops, opening drawers of lace and buttons and jewellery in his never-ending quest for accessories. Many hats, blouses, suits, shawls and uncomfortable shoes are needed. Besides the main actors, the show dresses thousands of extras every season. The cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It may only cost $300 to rent a hat for a season,” says Alex. “But we have hundreds of hats.”

His favourite part of the job is the fittings. “Actors arrive in flip-flops and T-shirts and they are transformed in the fitting room. You see the character come alive.” Sometimes, the actors require special care. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a fan and was invited to appear in one episode as a desk sergeant in the police station. Alex had no idea who was playing the role but he had to create a costume for this mystery guest actor. “I was sent sizes,” he says. “It was all very secretive. There were sniffer dogs in my wardrobe room.”

Fittings normally last for about two hours. Alex was given 30 minutes with the then-PM and was not allowed to bring pins or scissors into the fitting room. “I’ve never had to go through security to do a fitting with someone.”

The job is not all Prime Ministers, trips to LA and yards of ivory silk, though. It takes the organizational skills of a quartermaster general to make sure every costume, including the hat, shoes, jewellery, scarf, shawl, suit, tie and uniform, is on the rack and ready. For every actor, in every scene. Every day. Day after day. There cannot be any lapses, mistakes or excuses in television. You cannot keep a crew waiting while you run around looking for that missing earring or purse.

Speaking of purses, I wonder about the small handbags the women carry. It looks as though there is something in them, which speaks to Alex’s attention to detail, but what? “Oh,” Alex laughs. “Some of the actresses keep their cell phones in them.” Authenticity, it seems, has its limits.

Joanne Hansen gets to go on a space ship and see Mars whenever she feels like it. As costume designer for the sci-fi series The Expanse, she spends her working days dressing a futuristic spaceship crew who are colonizing the galaxy while trying to unravel a solar system-wide conspiracy threatening humanity. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually you can and therein lies Joanne’s challenge as a costume designer for a sci-fi series. There are no photos or catalogues to show how she should dress her characters. She cannot research the future.

“That’s right. We have to imagine what 200 years in the future would look like, and make it believable,” says the 57-year-old designer in her wardrobe department on the Pinewood Studios lot in Toronto. “The authenticity of the grittiness and reality of this world is important. It can’t be so unusual that it makes no sense.”

Mars is a long way from Hansen’s farm roots in Alberta. She says she kind of fell into costume design after working in Calgary in the 1980s and meeting people in what was then a young film industry in the province. A friend knew someone who needed help with costumes on a movie called The Climb and because Joanne could sew, she got the job. “The first time I was on the set, I said ‘This is me!’” She was hooked, and stitched her way up from sewer to costume designer in short order, working on movies and TV series and winning accolades along the way.

But back to the future, The Expanse. There is a fine line between too weird and not unusual enough. One of Joanne’s early designs for the show was a space suit in the shape of a man’s suit jacket. “It wasn’t right,” she says. “It looked like an ordinary jacket from behind. It needed tubing to take it from jacket to space suit.”

There’s a lot at stake. The sets and props may be meticulously researched, designed and built to a high standard of workmanship and authenticity, but if the characters walk on set dressed like cartoon spacemen it all falls apart. Our suspension of disbelief has limits. It is the costume that first creates the illusion that the character is real and living in a particular time, in this case, the future.

Joanne estimates she designed and built more than a dozen space suits before the final look was approved by Executive Producer and Showrunner, Naren Shankar. “Creating the future is so much harder than doing a historical period piece. There was a lot of experimentation,” he says from his office in Toronto. “How do you know when you’ve got it right? You just feel it.”

Joanne describes the transformation she witnesses in the fitting room. “I see it when the actors put the suits on. They look in the mirror and see themselves as that character. When the costume works, I can see it in their faces.”

The space suits are made of neoprene and can get pretty hot under television lights. Joanne’s solution is cooling shirts. These are black, short-sleeved T-shirts with tubing that runs across the chest and back. Between takes, the actors “plug in” to a water supply that runs cool water through the tubes. They’re made for people like firefighters and bicyclists but they work just as well for futuristic space explorers. There are other tricks of the costume trade in the wardrobe room, including boxes of knee-highs and Spanx. Apparently, panty lines are a no-no in the future.

Believable science fiction is a guiding principle for Joanne and her team. To get there, she uses real-life resource materials and reference points. For example, there are characters called Belters on the show. They are a working underclass who developed their own culture and language after generations of an almost slave-like, underground existence in an asteroid belt. Joanne looked to Roma Gypsies for inspiration for the Belters’ costumes. “They also live on the edge, with their own culture and customs. That influenced the colours we chose – our palette of well-aged patina over Indian spice and Holi colours – and how the Belters wear the costumes.”

The writers and producers of The Expanse wanted a show that portrayed space as it really is, meaning cruel and inhospitable. The costumes needed to reflect that harsh reality. This led to Joanne’s decision not to look to other sci-fi shows for inspiration. Her designs are rooted in real-life events. There are photos on the wardrobe department wall of New Yorkers coated in ash and with torn clothing from the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

These photos inform her designs of how a worn, dirty and battered space suit ought to look.

This is where the appropriately named Breakdown Department comes in: a large room with huge dye pots, scrapers, brushes and other tools that age costumes. The attention to detail is extraordinary. Seams are unpicked in the spots where wear would be expected, and fabric is distressed to create worn-out patches. It’s hard to see how this sort of detail could show on TV but it’s the difference between a Hallowe’en costume and the real deal.

Bonnie McCabe is one of the breakdown artists. She’s in the spray room and is eager to show Joanne how her current project is going. This costume is for a character who is about to have a very bad day. “It’s light enough we’ll see the blood on top,” says Bonnie.

I am flabbergasted about the amount of work that went into creating just this one piece. “The character had been taken captive, incarcerated over a long period of time, and will be caught in a gun battle and die of gunshot wounds,” says Joanne. Hence the blood. “We created six multiples of the costume to add patina to indicate the passage of time. Bonnie applied aging and patina to the costume so that it reflected living in a dirty cell for a long time, and copied this identically for each suit.”

We tour the set. I visit the bridge of the spaceship and watch a Mars landscape take shape from Styrofoam. It is easy to imagine what happens to an actor when they put on their space suit and magnetic boots and walk through this futuristic landscape. Without the costume, I am just a visitor. With a costume, I could become a space settler in 2216.

The wardrobe department on the set of a TV series can be a high-pressure place. Joanne’s department made or adapted 75 space suits, 500 flight suits, 200 magnetic boots, and countless insignias and crests, as well as all the helmets and gloves and additional gewgaws all costumes require. That was just for Season 1. Now into Season 2, new costumes for new characters and new scenes are needed. Her wardrobe crew works up to 16-hour days to support a 13-hour daily shooting schedule. It’s exhausting, challenging and exhilarating, all at the same time.

The day I visit the set of The Expanse, Joanne has a production meeting scheduled. She will go through the script with the producers and writers scene by scene, make schedules and get the racks of costumes ready for the next day. The show is not shot in sequence, so there can be any number of costume changes in a shooting day. “Everything we do is about not making any mistakes.”

This is intense, stressful work and you need downtime to recharge. Which is why Joanne and her partner Trish Stenson bought their 50-acre Warkworth property four years ago. Trish says Joanne wept when she first saw the view of the Northumberland Hills from behind the barn. Joanne smiles at the memory. “Sometimes I ask Trish to let me out at the top of the drive just so I can walk to the house. It’s the most beautiful and tranquil place.”

Alex has the same reaction when he comes home to his farm. “I pull up in the driveway and feel my blood pressure go down,” he says. “I cannot imagine leaving this place.” Alex and Joanne share a fierce love for life in the hills. Their spirits and creative energies are renewed by the peace of their country homes.

What an education it’s been to spend time on set with these designers. I watch TV and film with a different eye now, appreciating the ferocious attention to detail that people like Alex and Joanne bring to their work – details that make it real for the rest of us. Spanx included.

It’s like walking into a mad collector’s closet. Psychedelic ’60s pantsuits share space with ball gowns, oriental saris, sequined jackets, leather mini skirts and hundreds of vintage hats, many of which look like they belong in a museum. These clothes represent over 40 years of collecting and creating costumes for the theatrical productions of Cobourg’s Northumberland Players.

The Northumberland Players Costume House, tucked away on Campbell Street, already has a reputation as one of the best collections of amateur rentals between Hamilton and Montreal, but is also gaining fame among professionals. Recently, the costume designer for the television miniseries The Kennedys: After Camelot, with Katie Holmes and Matthew Perry, scoured the richness of the collection and rented thousands of dollars worth of clothes.

Besides supplying costumes for theatrical productions, the shop rents to people looking for a way to create a special event, from Downton Abbey teas or themed weddings, to the Northumberland Hospital Gala. What you won’t find are costumes for cartoon characters – no Spider-Man or Minions but lots of vintage ball gowns, prom dresses and tuxedos.

We are lucky enough to have two costume houses in Cobourg, both with growing international reputations. VOS Theatre (originally the Victoria Operetta Society) has been producing musicals and plays at the Victoria Concert Hall for 27 seasons. They have an extensive costume collection right across the street from Victoria Hall that they make available to other theatre companies around the world, including full-show rentals of Spamalot and Shrek that have been on stages throughout Canada and the United States, with enquiries from as far away as Hawaii and the UK.

The VOS is recognized for its professional-grade costumes, which are the work of local designers and seamstresses, all of whom volunteer their time and expertise to create these remarkable costumes.

Both VOS and Northumberland Players have extraordinary collections and, like all serious collections, they grow and grow, and nothing goes out unless it’s completely ruined. That includes the judge’s wig, the feather boas, the original boaters and the housedresses from the ‘30s that still have their price tags. You just never know when they might be needed.


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carl wiens

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