Local theater collaborates for costume sustainability

Courtesy of Christie Snyder | Pittsburgh Public Theater | Lawyer Bohun (Floyd King, left) and Dolly (Gun-Marie Nilsson, right) dance in the 1977 production of "You Never Can Tell," one of St. Pierre's favorite shows.

Tristan Hasseman | Staff Writer

For Vinese St. Pierre, the head of the costume department at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, costume creation and sustainability go hand in hand.

Currently, a number of theaters in Pittsburgh share costume pieces to put on shows in a sustainable way, and this camaraderie among the theater community is something St. Pierre hopes to grow both in Pittsburgh and beyond. Sustainability is a community effort, and multiple companies across the city work together to reduce waste.

“As part of the costuming community here in Pittsburgh, a lot of the costume departments, between the universities, such as myself here at Pitt, Point Park, CMU and then even the Public Theater and some of the other smaller theaters here will share costumes with each other,” said University of Pittsburgh’s costume shop manager Ricky Campbell. “We have an open borrowing policy with each other. That way, we’re reusing instead of constantly building.”

“From a labor perspective, [sharing] makes it a little easier because [creating] is so time consuming; you have to build a whole show from scratch, not to mention the cost,” he said. “It kind of helps kill two birds with one stone.”

But creating costumes that help convey the intended message without distracting from the story is not an easy task, and the materials chosen by the designer and the department vary from show to show.

For St. Pierre and her team, natural fibers like cotton, wool and linen are the name of the game due to their comfort, practicality and sustainability.

“They work up much nicer and we get much better results than petroleum based textiles like polyester,” St. Pierre said.

One downside to working with natural fibers is safely storing pieces so they can be used again. Moths are the biggest enemy to many pieces, St. Pierre said, and “once something gets infested with moths it needs to be thrown away.”

Due to the wide range of time periods the Public’s plays are set in, the costume department never knows when a piece they made might come in handy in the future. St. Pierre and her team reinvent old costumes by mixing and matching different pieces to create new outfits, but they also make sure to integrate new pieces into each production.

“We do have to be careful that we’re not repeating the same things,” she said, understanding that it is not always possible to reuse every costume.

Sustainability efforts have evolved over the years as well, mainly impacting the ways that the costume department gets their materials. While they used to drive to go shopping in-person for fabric, St. Pierre and her team now rely more on Amazon and delivery services to procure their materials.

During her many years of experience in the costume industry, St. Pierre’s job has evolved, but the goal remains the same. The success of the costume department revolves around the individual efforts and unique skills of each person.

“It’s self-sustaining for us, we come to work the next day because we like what we do,” St Pierre said.

Theater revolves around the story being shared with the audience and every aspect of a production is carefully chosen to convey that story with the utmost truth, St. Pierre said, and true success isn’t just a beautiful costume but a well-rounded and honest production.

“It’s the big picture success that is the best … having something be successful in theater has a lot to do with being true to the stories being told,” she said.