Designing costumes and defining character

Nessa Mora


As registration draws near, the Quaker Campus is taking this opportunity to highlight an interesting course for your consideration. This upcoming Fall semester, Whittier College’s theater department will be offering a class in costume design, taught by the Shannon Center’s very own costume designer, Monica French. Theater 347 is an introduction to the art of costume design for the stage and provides students with a sound basis in conceptualizing and drafting effective costumes to convey and support character. The class defines the importance of costume within the scheme of a theatrical production with regards to the creation of character, theme, tone, and setting. When asked what the difference between costume design and fashion was, French said, “Costume design is specifically for a character, whereas fashion is really for a mass market for people to consume it. Costume design is more the expression of one person, so you, as the costume designer, are choosing specific things to tell a story about that character.”

Next semester will be the fourth time French has taught costume design at Whittier College. She has been a part of the Whittier community for some time now as both an adjunct lecturer and the costume designer for the theater’s various productions. In addition to her jobs on campus, French also works for Knott’s Berry Farm’s costume shop. She constructs seasonal costumes for the Peanuts characters as well as designs and executes collections for Knott’s Scary Farm, the park’s Halloween event. Teaching the class in the Fall has worked in her favor, she said, as it gives her the opportunity to take students behind the scenes of Knott’s  Scary Farm, where they can see the theories of costume design working in a professional setting. Aside from this, she has continually worked in an academic setting in some capacity since graduate school and said she enjoys the educational theater environment. 

This is the only class of its kind in the department, and French is passionate about teaching it. “It’s my area of expertise, it’s what I do, so I feel very close to it because of that,” said French. Teaching allows her to expose other people to costume design and theater. “[Understanding the work that goes into a production] makes a big difference in the way you conduct yourself, in theater especially, understanding that everyone has a specific job is very important,” said French. 

French’s passion for design and theater shows through, and the reviews for the class have been resoundingly positive. “I feel like lots of people are surprised at how much they like the class,” said French. It is, after all, a fun class. With a focus on drawing and creating things, French has noticed that her students really dedicate themselves to the class. “[Students] really open up over the course of the semester and start to give more back in terms of their creativity,” said French.  

Creativity is indeed important in Theater 347, as the syllabus is built around three main design projects framed by smaller individual designs and a few presentational research projects. French was careful to include some more academic assignments to help ease some of the stress of the class, particularly for those not as inclined to the design aspect. “[I understand] some people really struggle with the creative side,” said French. “Having them think of things in a much more academic sense [is helpful for them]. So, we do a presentation/research project.  Just in case people are feeling insecure about the drawing, they have this [project] to be like ‘Oh! This is familiar!’ while still thinking about costumes.” French also makes it a point to include some costume history during the semester. She is excited to try out a new project in the Fall involving costume history which she is bringing over from her JanTerm class.

Contrary to last Fall, the class will meet twice a week on Mondays and Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. Last year’s class met only once a week, which was an exception. “It started to feel like every time we met there was something due, and something’s due, and something’s due … and I didn’t like that, so hopefully going back to two days a week will give us more time, for me, personally, with the class, and then for the class as a unit,” said French. 

When reflecting on the course and the workload, French said that she felt like it moved pretty fast. “It feels overwhelming,” said French. “On the first day, when I go through the whole thing, by the end of the syllabus I’m like, ‘Oh god, what have I done!’ but, it all makes sense.”

Indeed, despite the workload, students have thoroughly enjoyed the class. Fourth-year Alejandra Martinez took the class last Fall and enjoyed every minute. Although she was initially hesitant to enroll because of her art skills, she took the class because she believes that French is genuinely supportive of her students. “[French] has a perfect way of introducing material and allowing students to express their interest,” said Martinez. She said she would definitely recommend the class to others and would take it again given the chance.

If you are interested in taking Theater 347, the class is open to all majors and has no pre- or co-requisites.