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Behind the Tale - Costumes: The Idea of North

In designing characters for Tales of the Old North, the source material used has been almost exclusively illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielsen, who illustrated select scenes for the book’s publication in 1914. Our show is aesthetically an homage to his oeuvre. When I first saw the work by Nielsen I was fascinated with the way he managed to draw poetry – fusing smoky colour, high contrast graphics, fine detail, and sparsely rich composition. Having examined his entire body of work, the costumes in our adaptation aim to encapsulate as much of this spirit as possible. Additional research was needed for the three hags, whose inspiration is taken from Nova Scotian folklore.

My work always stems from both collage and fashion, though fashion can quite often be seen as a collage in itself. I view collage as something beyond paper cutouts: objects, fabrics, food, ideas, words, smells, composing and performing music. As the internet provides a staggering flow of information it’s hard to imagine that our ideas don’t germinate via collage. Fashion for me is similar, though the end product involves the relationship of objects-with-bodies, something every human on earth participates in, even if their participation is a willful non-participation.

The creation process is similar to how a fashion stylist works (where various pieces are sourced from various designers and dressed on models in new ways for advertisements). In this way large quantities of vintage garments are sourced and assembled, re-assembled, or altered to create a finished look. Particular things are built as needed, and emphasis is always placed on finding clothes that are too nice or too difficult to make without the aid of a large creative team and endless working hours. There’s a political and emotional depth to using vintage too; clothes from unknown origins around the globe that have already lived a life are being re-purposed and given new existence. Creating something new isn’t necessary, and mass-produced ‘fast fashion’ which has obliterated the regard for fabric, craftsmanship, quality, patience, and longevity, is not supported. The double edged sword in terms of fabric always remains: natural resources deplete and harm the earth, and synthetic ones usually cannot return. Processes of manufacture for either are often toxic. Natural materials (wool, silk, fur, leather, metal, bone, cotton, linen) are the focus for the garments in Tales of the North as our story takes place prior to 1900.

The final aesthetic layer both taken and expanded upon from Nielsen’s work is various types of folk dress. I looked at generally all of Northern Europe, Germany, Austria, Russia, Nepal, and Canada to see where similarities lie. My desire is to create a pastiche of what brings us together as a human species surviving in these colder climates, versus thinking about where one culture places their jacket buttons compared to another, or forgetting that culture is anything other than fluid. In Germany alone the regional differences are staggering. Furthermore I looked at Morocco, Turkey, India, Korea and warmer parts of China as references for luxurious colour, intricate embroidery, and strong pattern.

A concept in our show that transcends both the physiological and psychological is The North, and how we find peace, intimacy, and warmth amidst a cold, desolate northern landscape. There’s a feeling here I get in wintertime that can’t quite be defined, perhaps something I can sense but it’s too grand to pinpoint. Ever since I read The Golden Compass when I was 13, the His Dark Materials trilogy has since remained one of my absolute favourites (you can forget about the movie). The heading for chapter two reads ‘The Idea of North’, a phrase that has guided me throughout the design process and quite nicely sums up this feeling I’ve encountered. Our Idea of North is a fairy tale based in reality, and we’re ecstatic for you to partake in this mythology we’re constructing.

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