Find Your Passion: A Fashionable Storyteller

Costume design student depicts character's essence at a glance

Peyton Blankenship

By Chris Bryant

Making actors comfortable on stage is a big part of senior Peyton Blankenship’s role as a costume designer in The University of Alabama’s theatre and dance department.

And sometimes that comfort isn’t limited to the tranquility that comes from knowing the costume you’re sporting is well researched, well designed, and well-matched to your character’s personality.

In a recent fitting a few weeks prior to opening night, the 21-year-old Blankenship carefully eyes the look sported by “Osip,” a character in the play “The Government Inspector.” She’s not entirely pleased with the appearance of the student actor’s front fall pants, the thick, olive-colored trousers designed to take the audience back to 1835 Russia, the play’s setting. Alterations are a definite.

Peyton Blankenship
One of Blankenship’s sketches for the November play.
(Photo by Laura Shill)

Osip mentions one of his shoes feels strange. “I think you have two different shoes on,” Blankenship says. Upon closer inspection, she replaces the one-half sized smaller shoe with the other’s appropriate mate. It’s one of the easier adjustments she’s made to a costume since she first began adjusting her own as a pre-schooler.

“I always liked dress up,” says Blankenship, a theatre major. “And, I don’t think I every really got over that, so I’m making a career out of it. Halloween was always my favorite holiday. You get to wear costumes and pretend you are somebody you aren’t.”

Blankenship still enjoys Halloween – she dressed this year as a dead Red Shirt from Star Trek – but the College of Arts and Sciences student now has her career sights set on costume design for independent regional film makers.

Donna Meester, assistant professor of theatre and dance and Blankenship’s adviser, says her student is well cast for the career role. She ticks off some of the things that make a good costume designer.

“You’ve got to like working with a text and gleaning things out of it,” Meester says. “You are an investigator. You have to be curious about people. Why do they walk like that, dress like that, and talk like that? You have to figure out their personality, and you have to enjoy the research. You have to know what else is in a character’s closet. And, you need to be able to communicate. Peyton has all that. And, if she sets her mind to something, she is going to do it.”

Peyton Blankenship
Actors in “The Government Inspector” model their attire during a costume parade” prior to opening night. (Photo by Laura Shill)

Although she hasn’t officially launched her career, Blankenship is already developing quite a portfolio. For the November play, for instance, Blankenship oversaw the “building” of six dresses from scratch and the outfitting of each of the play’s approximate 25 characters with alterings from the department’s existing wardrobe.

When those characters stepped onto stage opening night, their appearance represented a semester’s worth of work for Blankenship and a college career worth of preparation. For Blankenship, first there was research of the play’s period to ensure clothing selections would be historically accurate, a read thru with the director to see how actors approached their parts, drawings – first thumbnails and later complete renderings, both of which required director approval, discussions with set designers and Meester, shopping for and purchasing fabric, further design, working with stitchers, then fittings, alterations, more fittings and rehearsals.

Peyton Blankenship
Peyton Blankenship’s career sights are set on costume design for independent regional film makers.
(Photo by Laura Shill)

“What I love about costume design,” Blankenship says, “is that you can tell through people’s clothes just about their person. When you first look at somebody, you get that overall impression – just from what they’re wearing – what kind of person they are. These were real people that had real lives and were really certain ways. I can create that, and somebody comes on stage and the audience says ‘oh, this person is very flamboyant, or this person is poor, but they are trying to pretend they are rich.’ It’s nice to add that to the story.”

Her experience is not limited to the UA stage. Two years ago, with Meester’s assistance, Blankenship landed a summer sewing and dressing assignment with The Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival, and she’s worked on costume design for a recently completed independent film for a Birmingham filmmaker.

A Hartselle native, Blankenship said she feels strongly she’s found her niche at UA. “I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was little. The older I got, the more I realized that I’m not a very fashionable person, and I like telling stories. Looking back, I wonder how I didn’t know because I see pictures of me, and I’m always wearing a costume in every picture that I have … putting on productions with my family. I’ve gotten pulled into this theatre department, and I really feel at home here.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.