Dear GRSF: What determines whether you make a costume from scratch or buy it?

Dear GRSF: What determines whether you make a costume from scratch or buy it?

“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.

Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, What determines whether you make a costume from scratch or buy it?

Answer by: Stephanie Jones, Costume Shop Manager

There are many factors that go into determining how we costume a show. Money and time are the biggest factors in the decisions we make.  Before we come to Winona, I am looking at what the designers are thinking about for the shows they are designing.  Once they show me their final designs, I need to be sure we can make their vision come to fruition. I start to think to myself, “Will this be a pull, build, or will we have to buy a costume?”


My first option is whether or not we can “pull it”. This means we pull or choose a piece of clothing that is in our stock of costumes from previous shows.  This is the most economical choice. If we are lucky, we won’t have to do alterations on the piece of clothing.  Not only do I like this choice the best, but so do designers. The more costume pieces they can pull, the more we can focus on more specific and elaborate pieces like Grace Belt’s pink dress in The Servant of Two Masters, which was built. What is mostly pulled are basic pieces like, pants, shirts, skirts, suits. Sometimes we rent or borrow pieces from other theaters or costume rental houses. 

Leah Gabriel, Christopher Gerson, and Gracie Belt in The Servant of Two Masters, GRSF 2019. Gracie’s costume could be custom built because the shop saved money “pulling” other costume pieces. Photo by Dan Norman.


After pulling costumes, we look at what remains, and what of the remaining costumes need to be built or can be purchased. Things we do not have the time to make in our 6-week build process are suits. It takes an accomplished tailor 40 hours to make a suit. As we employ not only seasoned professionals but interns who are learning their craft, we do not have the time or the people-power to build custom suits. If we don’t have the suit we need, we will buy or rent it. Other reasons we may buy clothing could be for when the design has more of a modern feel, like for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018. We bought or pulled clothing other than the coats for the fairies. 

Benjamin Boucvalt, Antonio Duke, Leah Gabriel, Anna Sundberg, Anique Clements, and Andrew Carlson in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, GRSF 2018. While some elements of the fairy costumes, like pants and shirts, may have been “pulled” or purchased, the coats were all custom made for this production. Photo by Dan Norman.

As for those fairy coats from Midsummer in 2018; those are pieces that were built by the GRSF costume shop. When it comes to building costumes we actually build a lot that you see on the stage each year. We make items you can’t find anywhere else, or when it is the most economical choice for the budget. We do shows each year from different time periods so many of those costumes need to be custom made.

We are lucky to have the skilled hands of Heather Hirvala, our Cutter/Draper. Heather, along with the designers and myself, will look at the costume build list and determine whether or not making something from scratch is possible. Then Heather goes to work making the patterns for those costumes and making sure our interns can make what is needed for shows, plus be able to fill their portfolios with new work. 

We are a shop of just fifteen people at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. I look at costumes as the first visual clue to the stories, and we are happy that we can help tell the story.