Punahou's dream closet


POSTED: Thursday, June 11, 2009

To kids, nearly anything they can put on is a costume. The costume is magical; it has the power to transform, to transmogrify schoolkid lead into actors' gold.

To parents, though, costumes are generally a Sisyphean chore, particularly because sewing isn't something most young mothers know how to do anymore. It can be daunting to turn that rambunctious youngster into a carrot or a Shakespearean gent or a Victorian lady.

Punahou Schools, however, is nothing if not a full-service learning center. The school has a costuming staff. It has a costumers' workshop. It also has an archive of something like 14,000 costumes tucked away beneath the school theater.

While that seems like a lot, remember that kids, even Punahou kids, come in all sizes.

Costume coordinator Vickie Van Wagner and assistant Gayln Akaka call their space “;lovely,”; primarily because it's quiet and cool and—most important—has natural light streaming in from high transom windows.

“;We can see what the actual colors are!”; beamed Van Wagner. “;It makes all the difference. Most costume shops are little hovels. It's very unusual to have this nice costume shop—I think only Kennedy Theatre has something comparable. The costume shop was added about 16 years ago, and the scene shop is directly above us. Kids can go right up these stairs to the stage.”;

Punahou Schools is ages K through 12, and each class has some sort of performance. This means the costume shop sewing machines are constantly humming. In addition to the staffers, Punahou's costume shop uses a couple of adult and student volunteers to keep track of things. The other staffer is Jennifer Iacovelli, a former student.

“;The school doesn't teach costume design. We're staff support,”; said Van Wagner. “;But as the kids are fitted, we teach as much as we can about the period. We have a lot of books for them to look at.”;

This is one place where “;the changing size of the student body”; actually means something, notes Akaka. “;They grow so fast! You can't keep measurements on anyone.”;

“;Our forte is alterations,”; said Van Wagner.

“;It's impossible to compare us to any other educational institution, we have such a wide range of students and productions,”; said Akaka. “;But you still have to teach a kid how to wear a costume. The costume has to be age-appropriate; you have to understand what a kid can handle at whatever age.

“;Let's face it: The average second-grader in Hawaii wears T-shirts and shorts. They're simply not used to more clothes than that.”;

We're talking corsets, ties, ruffled collars, bustles, hoop skirts, the whole fashion parade over the centuries. Even the body English, the way you move, is different. “;Melding all the different things together, that's the miracle,”; said Van Wagner.

THE SHOP'S “;closet”; is an enormous climate-controlled room jammed ceiling to floor with hanging and boxed costumes. Despite Mommy Dearest's demands, everything is on wire hangers. “;Otherwise, we wouldn't have room,”; said Van Wagner. “;And because it's dry in here, the wire hangers don't rust.”;

No, they don't rent out costumes for Halloween. But they're always interested in donations of vintage clothing. (Call 944-5855 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) if you'd like to have Grandma's clothes see new life.)

They don't just fit and sew. Teenagers are sweat machines, and the costume shop laundry runs all day long. “;Sixty-five loads after a variety show,”; sighs Van Wagner.

Costumes are never retired; they're reused over and over, often dyed and resewn. Shirts often have up to 10 names written on the tail of who it was assigned to. As the Star-Bulletin photographer searched in vain for the Shakespeare costume he wore as a child, Van Wagner giggled that former TV reporter and talented singer/actor Keoki Kerr “;has a costume he comes to visit.”;

What about Barack Obama? Does he have an Abraham Lincoln costume stashed in here somewhere?

Van Wagner and Akaka looked at each other.

“;Uhhh, I don't think so,”; said Van Wagner. “;I think Barack Obama was more interested in basketball at the time.”;