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Top Girls

Costume Design Concept


Set on the cusp of Margaret Thatcher’s groundbreaking ascension to Prime Minister, playwright Caryl Churchill offers a provocative look at “feminine” power.  The play opens in a tableau dining room where women from various real and fictitious moments in history are assembled.  Each shares a recollection from her unique life experiences, but the evening degenerates into a competition of topping one another.  They are all “top girls.”


We see this conflict carried through a mixture of scenes – in a backyard tree-fort where pre-teens trade insults, in the Top Girls Employment Agency where women ruthlessly evaluate one another according to the shallowest of criteria, and finally in the dialogue of two sisters unified through a family secret but severed by political dissension.


The departure from a typically linear, "masculine” plot-line presented a design challenge.  Events were not set in sequence or even flashback.  Trying to grasp the playwright’s intent, I began a search for an alternate plot construction model and arrived at the chalice/phallus motif.  If the plot structure wasn’t linear, perhaps it was cyclical or conical.  Finally, I arrived at the vortex as a shape on whose structure I could hinge a design concept. 


I noted Margaret Thatcher’s skillful use of brightly colored suits as a power tool and felt a monochromatic color scheme might serve the play’s central theme – the simultaneously unified, yet competitive, sisterhood of womankind.  I plotted the costumes along the vortex and confined the palette to tones of red unique for each scene.  The Scenic Designer planned a set of geometric shapes painted in neutrals which provided the perfect counterpoint for the use of bold color in the costume design.


The color story transitioned from bright red, to rose, to magenta, to rust, and in the final scene, to a dull pale pink.  For each scene, we wanted tones to exist in the same color family without clashing.  Fortunately, our Lighting Designer was willing to conduct multiple tests, allowing us to refine the palette and achieve the color concept.


An ensemble cast, each of whom played multiple roles presented another costuming challenge.  There seemed to be a loose psychological link between the roles each actress would play, so I decided to use silhouette and style through-lines for each actor.  The actor who played the roles of Dull Gret and Angie would be costumed in jumper-style empire-waist dresses. Marlene would be in masculine business attire.  The actor who played Pope Joan and Louise would wear capes. And the actor who played Patient Griselda, Nell, and Jeanine would be costumed in princess line silhouettes.  Luckily, there was a vast variety in the fashions of the era, and all the styles selected had a stake in the early 1980’s.


As the play opens, characters enter the scene one by one, each in a red costume from a different moment in history.  I believe this visual statement prepared the audience for the action that would follow and invited them into the abstraction of the play.  In a piece driven by relationships and rivalries, the monochromatic palette and unifying silhouettes realized the director’s vision and the playwright’s intent by dramatizing the theme of inclusiveness versus exclusivity.

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