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Hierholzer designs costumes, dedicates time

Students involved in FC drama are making last-minute preparations for their play that is scheduled to open at 7 p.m., Dec. 8. Drama director Susan Ainley has been preparing the students for months, running lines and designing sets.

However, a play production requires more than the work of just one person. Many people who work behind-the-scenes are often overlooked even after they have dedicated hours of time.

Karin Hierholzer, mother of previous Editor-in-Chief of The Feather Anne, ’05, Will, ’07, and previous Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Feather Mary, ’12, has been the costume designer for all of FC’s theater productions for the past four years.

She has dedicated hundreds of hours of time as well as yards and yards of fabric to create costumes that fit the time periods of each play. She first became interested in costume designing when her daughter, Mary, decided to be part of a performance of The Nutcracker.

“When my daughter Mary was in a production of The Nutcracker, I was asked to alter and decorate some costumes for the Fresno Ballet,” Hierholzer said. “I was fascinated by the combination of artistic design, the way a costume changes when viewed across the footlights by the audience and the practical considerations which allow a dancer or actor to move as required. A costume must also be tough enough to last several years, be adjustable for different body types and never fail during a performance. When Mary joined drama at FC, I volunteered in hopes that I could continue this new interest.”

Hierholzer has designed costumes for numerous plays, including Tartuffe, After Ever Happily, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, The Babbling Brooks, and Twelve Angry Men. She has also designed costumes for FC’s productions of A Christmas Carol, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Gift of the Magi and Little Women. Though Hierholzer admits costume designing becomes a tough job as opening night approaches, it remains an activity that she enjoys.

“Costume designing and production is all-consuming as a play approaches, but it’s still just a hobby,” Hierholzer said. “I love puzzles, and constructing a costume is like putting together a 3-D puzzle.”

Hierholzer first learned how to design costumes when her daughter wanted a dress replicated from a movie. After the first dress, costume designing became a hobby for both her and her daughter to enjoy.

“In fourth grade, Mary wanted that cranberry-colored Elizabeth Swann dress from Pirates of the Caribbean,” Hierholzer said. “That got me started, and I went on to design and sew her Civil War nurse dress for fifth grade (both appear, much altered, in Little Women). I had so much fun designing and sewing Mary’s NOTS dresses that were inspired by runway or red carpet gowns. We watched all the red carpets, fashion runways and Vogue covers looking for her next NOTS dress.”

Ainley notes that Hierholzer graciously volunteered her services to the drama department and has never asked for anything in return for her dedicated time.

“When I first became the high school drama teacher two years ago, Hierholzer called me and graciously offered her services,” Ainley said. “When we met, I told her the two plays we would be doing that year, and she said she would like to make the costumes for both. She refused any payment, saying she offered it as a service to the FC community, and that it was a fun activity for her. I of course said ‘yes,’ since I had seen her work in previous productions before I was the drama teacher.”

Hierholzer explains that she doesn’t accept payment because she enjoys using costume designing as her way of thanking FC.

“I design and sew because it’s fascinating and because I like to give back to FCS for the many blessings it has provided my family with for so many years,” Hierholzer said. “I also always hope the students will enjoy having costumes. The girls always seem happy when I appear with my arms full of pieces for a first fitting.”

Compared to other costume designers, Ainley believes Hierholzer puts extra effort into researching time periods and making costumes that can later be altered and used in future plays.

“A week or so after our initial meeting, she came back to me with sketches and detailed plans on how to make the costumes,” Ainley said. “I was so impressed, and have continued to be with each production. Her costumes stand out from rented ones. She reads the script, researches the era, then shops for fabric that will work best for that time frame. She’s very thrifty, reusing pieces of costumes to create new ones. For example, when she made costumes for last year’s Gift of the Magi, which was set in the early 1900s, she purposely used more fabric than necessary for the skirts. That way, she said, she could turn the ‘bustle’ of the 1900s dress into a full skirt of the 1800s.”

Hierholzer explains that inspiration for her costumes usually comes from research on historical time periods and other plays.

“Research takes about a week,” Hierholzer said. “I read the plays while taking note of character needs and personalities. Then I go online to look at costumes from plays and movies, historical photos if there are any and portraits of the period. Amy and Beth’s dresses for Little Women are based on old photos and a painting by Degas. The older girls’ dresses are a historical pattern from an 1860 dress found in Wisconsin.”

Ainley also notes that Hierholzer’s costumes are designed specifically for the actors, and Hierholzer spends a lot of time making sure everyone’s costumes fit.

“The costumes are designed and sewn with the exact actors in mind,” Ainley said. “She sews costumes for the entire cast and brings in pieces of the costumes into class for fittings, taking them home again for adjustments. Later, when it’s time for dress rehearsal, she comes early to set everything out for each actor, helping them learn how each costume should fit. Every piece of the costume is under her jurisdiction, from hair ribbons to shoes, from petticoats to jewelry. I tell the students, ‘If she says you need to change something, do it. If she says it works, wear it. She is the Queen of the Costume Universe.'”

Because the costumes are personalized, they take a lot of time to make, and Hierholzer notes that the intricate designs for this year’s production required many hours of work.

“Making a play’s costumes takes months,” Hierholzer said. “The Little Women bodices are made of 29 pieces, so each bodice took most of a day to cut, another day to sew, and another day for hand sewing and alterations. If I decide to make my own pattern, that takes time too. I don’t sew constantly because I still have errands like Bible studies and housework! The elaborate Tartuffe and Little Women costumes have been the most time-consuming. The easiest costumes are modern and 1950s plays which just require a bit of time in thrift shops finding pieces with the visual clues I’m looking for. Then I alter them and make the pieces I’m missing.”

Though costume designing is a hobby that Hierholzer enjoys, she admits that it comes with its challenges.

“The biggest challenge is keeping my house neat,” Hierholzer said. “My dining room is a blizzard of petticoat netting right now. I have a very patient husband! It’s hard when I don’t have enough time to make quality costumes. The worst costumes I’ve made were on three day’s notice. Most costumes need fabric we can’t afford, so I’m usually suggesting a time period with inexpensive cotton. I tweak the costumes right up to performance, trying to capture those visual clues, but it doesn’t always work.”

Ainley believes Hierholzer’s commitment to her job makes her costumes stand out from rental costumes.

“She watches every dress rehearsal, taking notes,” Ainley said. “She takes the costumes home after each performance and irons them, bringing them back for the next performance. No rental company could ever do a fraction of that work, and the costumes would never look so good. She is committed to making the costumes authentic, which adds significantly to the overall believability of the production. I think one of the most honoring things I could say is that my students want to keep their costumes; that’s how nice they are.”

Hierholzer provides many of the materials for her costumes and tries to save money in every way that she can.

“I provide thread, buttons and elastic and I own the petticoats and several costumes that are re-used often,” Hierholzer said. “FC pays for fabric when something new has to be made, and ticket sales from one evening performance easily pay for a year’s costumes. I’m a penny pincher so I find the cheapest fabrics possible. A well-ironed cotton ball gown can look like silk to an audience absorbed in the play.”

Even after all the success she’s had with her work, Hierholzer remains very humble about all of her costumes and refuses payment and recognition from the drama department.

“Karin is completely humble and unassuming about her abilities,” Hierholzer said. “I can’t imagine working that hard without compensation, but she doesn’t want to be paid, and only grudgingly allows me to put her name in the program! To put that in perspective, last year I spent $2,000 on a set for our play Cheaper by the Dozen. It was a necessary expense, and we will reuse the set many times. I think Karin spent about $400 on fabric for costumes for the whole year, and we will reuse those costumes many many times. But she probably spent hundred of hours making them, and wouldn’t take a penny for her time. Honestly, I work harder and make the students work harder just thinking about how diligently she labors over those costumes.”

Hierholzer’s dedication to the drama department is appreciated by students in the drama department. Senior Katherine Bennett is amazed by how beautiful her costume turned out for the play this year.

“The costumes that Mrs. Hierholzer makes are magnificent and phenomenal,” Bennett said. “I have a beautiful circle skirt and perfectly fitted bodice, which is my favorite part about it. It’s a really nice floral print, and I’m so grateful for all of Mrs. Hierholzer’s hard work. How many times in your life do you get to have clothes custom-made for you? She is so unbelievably talented, and I cannot imagine the amount of patience she must have in order to do this for us.”

Zoe House, ’16, is also very appreciative of Hierholzer’s work on the costumes for the play.

“They are wonderful and really help bring out the characters that we’re portraying,” House said. “My costume is green, resembles a marshmallow, and covered in small flowers. I love how fluffy it is; it feels like a Snuggie. Mrs. Hierholzer is very determined with her costume-making, and I’m thankful for her talents and hard work.”

For more features, read the Dec. 5 article, Channel 47 visits ‘The Feather,’ features publication.

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    Brooke StobbeNov 6, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Playing soccer was such a spectacular experience. I was honored to be so welcomed onto the team. The girls were all so helpful and encouraging through each season, and really made the experience. I love my soccer girls and will miss them dearly; however, I will always remember how much fun we had every time I look back at my album.

    I love you girls 🙂