Red lace, bruise colored velvet, a sumptuous green fringe, the costume department at Arena Stage has pulled out all of the stops for The Heiress. Their secret weapon is Ivania Stack, a D.C. based costume designer who has spent the last five months immersed in the fashion of 1850’s New York. The research and design process has spread from New York to Vienna, where, like a bounty hunter, Stack was on the hunt for 10-12 yards of a particular silk. While combing through daguerrotypes, scrolling through Pinterest and trudging through the streets of New York looking for just the right lace sounds exhausting, Stack is totally serene when we meet up with her less than a week before the media premiere.
“We’ve been giggling through the process,” says costume director Joe Salasovich, “With Ivania, you can’t stop collaborating.”
And that collaboration has created something remarkable. Stack’s costumes are the very definition of luxurious. There’s a red lace dress so saturated with color that it looks like something straight out of a Dario Argento movie and a blue wrap dress so cool and comfortable, looking at it feels like taking a sip of cold water. The costumes are particularly important for a show like The Heiress because they’re windows into what the characters are thinking and feeling.
The entirety of the play (which was based on Henry James’ Washington Square) takes place in the living room of a New York mansion and follows the story of Catharine Sloper and her father Dr. Austin Sloper. Catharine (who suffers from a debilitating shyness) is constantly put down by her father for not living up to the image of her deceased mother. Despite her lack of charisma, she’s introduced to a young man and is quickly engaged. Her father, who can’t find it in his heart to let things go, immediately calls out the young man for being more interested in Catherine’s large inheritance than her. In response, Catharine spends the rest of the play cruising on a soft and fluffy cloud of revenge.
With Stack’s direction, Catharine’s shift from shy young lady to a Medea-like character fueled by nothing but sweet vengeance has been cleverly reflected through every costume change. “Her progress as a woman, and a human, is so important,” Stack notes, “She’s coming into her own.”
While all of Catharine’s dresses are lavish, the first few she wears are outrageous. They’re brightly colored, full of ruffles and they cover every inch of her skin (“She’s suffocating within her clothes,” Stack explains). As time goes on, the necklines drop lower, the ruffles disappear and Catharine takes on a far more muted, and at times moodier palette. Stack’s favorite dress encapsulates Catharine’s turning point. After having her engagement cancelled, Catharine rolls into the living room in a dusky purple dress covered with panels of burned velvet. Stack calls it the bruise dress. Finding a way to attach those panels was one of her most difficult projects, but the result is equal parts elegant and melancholic. “It was a labor of love,” she says.
That level of design doesn’t stop with the leads, Stack’s lush costume work can be seen on every character. From the flowery bonnets to the matching shoes, no detail is overlooked. Coats and capes (most of which are seen for a second during the play) are fussed over with the same ferocity.
Part of that is because of the era, even if the audience doesn’t know anything about New York in 1851, we all have ideas in our mind of what 18th century gear looks like. In some cases, Stack has had to fuse what fashion actually was, with what we imagine it was. For example, top hats of the era were rigidly straight, but to most modern eyes that looks cartoonish and fake, so Stack has given them some curve. She also has to keep the actor’s needs in mind. Hemlines in the 1800s went down the the floor, but that makes walking around the set (or running up stairs) more challenging for the actresses. “It feels right, even if you don’t know the history,” says Stack.
After the months of work, Stack’s job is almost complete. She’ll be adjusting things until the lights go down, adding snaps and zippers. But the hardest work is done. As we finish chatting, I ask her how she knows. With all the ruffles and accessories and lace overlays, how does she know when a dress is done? How does she know when it’s perfect? “It’s a feeling,” she says, ” You watch a run and you just know it.”
“It’s a pretty magical thing,” adds Salasovich.