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June 26, 2014 Volume 35, No. 32

Research and imagination bring theater costumes to life

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Student Matt Ingram tries on his stage garb, with help from Mary Frances Hodson, left, and Kerri Packard. Photo by Rob Hill.

The Summer Repertory Theatre performances begin July 10

For Kerri Packard, picking a favorite theater production is like picking a favorite child. The costume director for the theater department has been creating costumes at MU for more than 20 years. (And, yes, she dressed Jon Hamm, a Mizzou alumnus and star of the hit TV series Mad Men.)

Recently she designed the costumes for the Summer Repertory Theatre’s Is He Dead?, a play by Mark Twain set in the 1840s about a French painter who fakes his death in hopes of increasing the value of his art. Is He Dead? premieres at 7:30 p.m. July 12 in the Rhynsburger Theatre. 

To create the characters’ costumes, Packard examined 19th-century French fashion plates, or illustrations tailors and dressmakers used to portray fashionable styles (today women flip through Vogue). Is He Dead? is a farce, so everything — from the costumes to the set to the acting — will be big and bold, Packard said. 

Sometimes she studies artwork to grasp a director’s vision for set design and lighting. For the 2013 production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, director David Crespy found inspiration in the realistic work of Edward Hopper. Packard used the mood and the coloration of the paintings to inform her designs.

“I love period shows because I can put a lot of detail in them,” said Packard, who learned to sew when she was 8 and later designed costumes for her high school’s theater productions. “There is more fabric and decorations, so the character is easier to portray in the costume.”

For Is He Dead?, Packard designed seven dresses and used countless more outfits already stocked in the department. She estimates there are more than  5,000 pieces in the stock room. 

“We’re popping at the seams,” Packard said. 

Once Packard is done with her sketches, she gives them to Mary Frances Hodson, who builds the costumes. Nearly 35 years ago, Hodson came to MU as a student. Assigned to work in a microbiology lab for her work-study position, Hodson quickly tired of washing petri dishes and test tubes. She applied for a position in the costume shop, where she learned to make patterns and cut and drape fabric. She’s been the costume shop supervisor since 2002. 

“I love taking Kerri’s wonderful period renderings and creating the patterns and turning them into 3-D pieces of art,” Hodson said. 

For the next five weeks, Packard and Hodson worked together — along with the director, stage manager and actors — on the clothing vision for the characters. 

Senior journalism major Matt Ingram plays Dutchy, a German bohemian living in Paris. For one of his character’s outfits, Packard pulled off the rack a pair of 1960s-style patterned pants, a striped shirt, an ascot tie and a paisley vest. “But even though we’re pulling garments that have been seen before on stage, Kerri is so creative in how she’s redesigned it with just a little bit of effort,” Hodson said. “It’s wonderful to see these things get manipulated and repurposed. It looks like it’s cohesive with the rest of the newly designed costumes.” 

Like the jacket Hodson built from an old tailoring book from the period. “It’s like visiting history and making it come alive,” Hodson said. 

The duo is also working on costumes for The Drowsy Chaperone, a musical set in the 1920s. The Drowsy Chaperone premieres at 7:30 p.m. July 10 at the Rhynsburger Theatre. For the Summer Repertory Theatre’s full performance schedule, visit

— Kelsey Allen