Christa Obergfell handmade the hats, parasols and other accessories for the Importance of Being Earnest, alongside 15 separate costumes.

BEHIND THE SCENES: Costuming for the Importance of Being Earnest

How to design the costumes for a play set in 1895

The swish of long skirts, the dignity of a well-placed hat, and the prestige of a three-piece suit are a feast for the eyes during the Williams Lake Studio Theater’s latest production.

The Importance of Being Earnest is set in 1895, and the costumes — true to period — were individually designed and sewn from scratch by costume designer Christa Obergfell.

Obergfell started designing the costumes before the play was cast, when she read the script last year. After meeting with the director, Becky Strickland, to see what she wanted for the various characters – four men and four women – in terms of colour and feels, she got to work.

“From there I made a costume plan for each character. For instance, Gwendoline is the London fashion plate and Lady Bracknell is over the top with her embellishments.”

Next, she started gathering fabrics and accessories.

Christa Obergfell

Before the play was cast she started working on hats and accessories for the different characters. Lady Bracknell and Gwendoline each have two parasols and two hats, marvellously decorated with an assortment of feathers, lace, fabrics and accessories.

As soon as the actors were picked, she started right in on the sewing.

Each dress, she said, could easily take two weeks worth of work.

“You need to make a muslin first, and you fit that and then you start cutting the fabric, and then you fit that, and once you have your basic dress then you put the embellishments on.”

Each main female character has a very different look.

For Lady Bracknell: “Excess,” said Obergfell. “With her there is lace and layers of fabric and embellishment.”

Gwendoline, Lady Bracknell’s daughter: “As I said before, she is the London fashion plate, very much so. Still very elegant and very current, but certainly more restrained than her mother.

Cecily, who lives in the country: “She’s only 18, at home in the garden, so she is a lot simpler. She would wear a very simple dress.”

And for Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess: “Very definitely the shirt waist, which is the blouse and skirt of the time.”

VIDEO: The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at Williams Lake Studio Theatre

Via books and the internet Obergfell looked into fashion of the period.

“It has to be correct, as far as the styles and fashions of the time,” she said. “I do the research for various silhouettes and what people were wearing, what types of fabrics and colours and then I start hunting for patterns that are either period correct or that I can adapt.”

The men are seen onstage in variations of a three-piece suit.

“That type of suit was first seen in 1860 and became widespread in 1890s, as opposed to the frock coat which you still see on,” she said.

“Everyone wore waistcoats, sometimes as a three piece all the same and sometimes as the contrast waistcoats which I am showing here.”

The male character’s costumes each fit, from the priest to the town and city servants to the “occasionally overdressed” Algenon, and the slightly more subdued Jack.

“Each costume suits the character so as long as it suits the character it’s perfect and as long as the actors like what they are wearing and are comfortable that is the top of the line. The rest is do your best, but it’s got to be what people want to wear.”

In doing the period costumes, Obergfell has developed a bit of a sympathy for women of the day.

“The poor laundry maids of the time they must have gone insane trying to iron these things, because of course everything was cottons and linens and natural fibers that needed ironing,” she laughs.

Still, she enjoys it.

“I love doing the costumes. I’ve sewn all my life, so it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

The Importance of Being Earnest runs Wednesday to Friday until March 24.


“If I am occasionally a little overdressed I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated,” says Algenon (played by Michael Diebolt) to Jack (played by Shane Tollefson)

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