“What is the story behind poodle skirts?”

Talking Grease costumes with Costume Designer Edith G. Moreno

There’s just no denying the unique fashion of the Grease. Edith G. Moreno, Costume Designer at GREAT, has been researching the trends of bygone eras and designing looks to communicate a specific place in time and a specific group of characters, all for a very specific venue. We talked with Edith about the history of fashion in the 50s, what its like to work with a Directors Concept, and the influences we’ll see onstage at the Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park, July 21, 22, and 23!

Episode Transcript:

Breana: Have you ever watched a show and wondered, “How did they do that?” There’s a story behind it all. And that is what theater is all about. Exploring and reflecting on humanity through shared stories and bringing people together. From the talent onstage to creative collaboration backstage, and community building on all levels, we’re here to share with you HOW each story becomes part of our GREATer story, how theater brings our community together and makes it greater. Welcome to HOW GREAT: a GREAT Theatre podcast.

Keenan: Really excited to be back today, talking about “Grease” from yet another angle. We talked about “Grease” with the director, Kendra Norton Dando, and with volunteer actor and longtime friend of GREAT Theatre David Symalla, who is playing the role of Vince Fontaine in the upcoming production. Today we’re talking with Costume Designer Edith G. Moreno, who has been at GREAT Theatre for just about one year now. Before we start, how are you?

Edith: I’m okay. Now I’m nervous. I’m not that nervous. I’m good. Today’s been a good day. It’s after the holidays, so well rested. Watching movies and vegging out for the weekend was really refreshing.

Breana: And now we’re a couple weeks away from “Grease.” So the, the pressure is on. Yeah.

Edith: That’s the scary part, right?

Breana: Well, it’s nice though, I guess, that we have that break cuz it’s like a mandatory break we have to take. Yeah. And then you’re like, okay. I can like recenter myself. So, talking about like processes and everything and getting back to it, where are you in the process now? And what are you working on?

Edith: I am about like 85% done with the show. I just have a few little things here and there left to do. I mean, other than that, I’ve been trying to ease into it since May so it doesn’t accumulate.

Keenan: What would you say is the last 15% you still have to do?

Edith: The tiny details of like, the accessory pieces, um, making sure somebody has shirts… now that I have a rough estimate about what their sizes are, I can just pick something else out and it makes it my job slightly easier. But now that I’ve seen most of the cast, it makes it easier for me to coordinate too.

Breana: So. The costuming process. What are the steps you have to take to get to the completion of the show? You have the cast, you have fittings, you have, you know, pulling, picking, buying…

Edith: Yeah. Do you wanna know before that happens?

Keenan: Whoa. Yeah.

Breana: I wanna know all the things.

Edith: Uh, basically when we first start, we have to read the script on our own, and then you collaborate with the director and try to understand the director’s vision of that. In this situation for “Grease”, it was slightly different, cuz I actually leaned more with Kendra on character development for the show and really trying to find the heart of what this show is. So we leaned more into the women of the show and how they have the most character development in comparison to the men. And also the symbolism of… why “Grease” was set where it was and how we can adapt what we know into a larger stage. So we considered all the factors prior to going into this conversation. And then after that I go away and I do my research. And one of the things I fixated on my research was understanding why poodle skirts were a thing and why people associate poodle skirts with “Grease” and leather jackets. And it was very interesting to kind of deal with that because a lot of people just didn’t know and I didn’t know it myself either. And that there’s a whole story and it wasn’t a movement that stayed very long in the fifties. It was just something that was like maybe three to four years. Yeah.

Breana: What is the story behind poodle skorts?

Edith: Skorts? Those don’t come till later.

Breana: Skirts and leather jackets.

Edith: Well, the leather jackets are just a badass looking thing. Sorry. Can I say that? Can I say that?

Breana: I dunno.

Keenan: I think so?

Edith: Okay. Um, but poodle skirts actually–

Breana: Bad *BEEP*

Keenan: Actually that would be funny.

Edith: That would be funny. You can do that and then I’ll be like, can I say that? Okay. So the poodle skirts, uh, I did the research on them. They only lasted a few years in the fifties. They actually started in the forties. I believe it was like 1947, once we were getting out of the war. So this woman named Juli Lynn Charlotte, she was an actress, a singer, and she had dipped into design, but not entirely. She only had some experience doing whatever she was working on at the time as an actress or singer. She was invited to go to a Christmas party, but she didn’t have anything to wear that was new or anything like that. So she invented her own thing because her mother owned a felt company. So she had lots of felt fabric laying around and she put a circle in the middle of it all, created a skirt, so that way it wouldn’t have any seams. So that way she wouldn’t have to sew something together. So she was just being efficient. And then she decorated it with some Christmas ornaments. I’m not specific, like, I don’t know what the actual ornaments were, so I don’t know if they were like garland or anything like that, but it was enough to create personality on clothing cuz in 1947, women really didn’t have a distinct look that identified their personalities. It was just more a generic look because of all of the fabric rationing, all the women having working jobs and holding the economy together in the war time. So coming back to that, times were changing and fabric rationing wasn’t a thing as much anymore. So people were getting access to tons of fabric. But the styles were still very conservative. It was still one toned. There wasn’t versatility. So when she went to this party, women flocked to it, they liked it, and they asked for their own specialty skirt. And then she ended up putting up like two or three at a boutique in Los Angeles. And they sold instantly, so the owner of that boutique asked for more. And then kept asking and kept asking. And so she was basically creating a little empire of circle skirts.

Keenan: So she cut one big circle out of a bolt of cloth and then a smaller circle out of that, and that’s the skirt?

Edith: And that’s the skirt. No seams, no nothing.

Keenan: That’s so cool.

Edith: It’s very efficient. She actually is still alive actually. She’s like 99, I think? She’s in her nineties.

Keenan: The inventor of the poodle skirt.

Breana: We should invite her to “Grease.”

Keenan: We should!

Edith: She she’s retired though. She’s retired in Mexico, that’s where she took her company because of the fact that it was impossible to obtain a facility in New York cause it was so expensive, and actually, the facility that she had burned down. So then she took what she had and went to Mexico, where it was a little bit more efficient to do business.

Keenan: Wild that the inventor of one of the most successful fashion trends of that day couldn’t afford to be in New York.

Edith: Um, a lot of it has to do with how you manage your business. And so she had to actually rely on investors at some point to help keep that company afloat and keep her employees.

Keenan: We hope you’ll join us at the ledge amphitheater for “Grease” July 21st, 22nd and or 23rd. The 23rd of July will be our American Sign Language performance. These shows will all start at 8:00 PM, which differs from some of our other evening shows because we need the sun to go down before the lights can come up. All tickets are gonna be through Ticketmaster. The easiest way to get to the page is through GREATTheatre.org, where there’s a direct link to the event on Ticketmaster. Uh, you can download the Ticketmaster GoMobile app and show your tickets at the gate from your phone. You can also have them mailed to you. If TicketMaster isn’t your thing, they do have availability on Fridays at the Ledge Box Office. You can go in person. It’ll also help you skip the Ticketmaster fees that are applied to tickets that are purchased online. That would be Fridays from 10 to 2:00 PM. We’ll see you at the Ledge.

Breana: Um, what’s it like taking what Kendra wanted out of the show and then interpreting it as a design concept?

Edith: I think one of the key things about interpretation of a director’s vision is establishing a good relationship with them and understanding their aesthetic. So, because I worked with Kendra on “Matilda,” I kind of already understood what she leans into and, taking a little bit of her context of some of these characters… I don’t know how to explain something that I can envision in my brain instantly. Cuz when somebody tells me what they want, I can start to already establish it in my head. So it’s about taking what I know from our interactions on a day to day, interactions with the director’s notes to me, and then putting it all on there. And I knew the key thing is that I would have to lead this into more color on stage cuz I know that that’s something that needs to be represented on this stage in order for it to be seen. That whole director’s process, we actually really more than anything collaborated a lot more on this one. Simply because we knew what our factors were and that kind of influenced the overall design in the overall world.

Keenan: You mentioned that the colors need to be super visible on stage. Do you think that’s moreso because this show is at the Ledge, which is a much bigger venue or…?

Edith: Definitely because this is a bigger venue. The Ledge has a tendency to absorb color. It also has a tendency to make people look small. So last year for Cinderella, there were gold dresses. When you’re so far back into the audience, that color looked pretty much white. And so that stage with the light mixture and the scenery, it can absorb colors because those are complimentary colors, since there was a lot of beige tones on the set, it would start to absorb that. The lighting can also do that too. And also in the daylight, cuz we also have that going on with this show, is that the daylight can also take away some of the hues and pigmentation of clothing. So it’s about how do I manipulate the colors? And they look kind of scary at the beginning, like in person, cuz they’re a lot brighter, but I know that once we’re on stage, it’s gonna just disappear.

Keenan: Then it needs to like, be an exclamation mark to be perceived as punctuation at all kind of thing.

Edith: Yeah. Pretty much.

Breana: It’s like the black and blue, white gold dress situation all over again.

Edith: Well, it’s just like with acting too, like acting, they tell you, like when you’re pointing a finger, if you’re onstage, you have to do it with two fingers, so you can see at least something happening.

Keenan: That that makes sense.

Breana: Keenan is trying this exercise.

Keenan: Even though I’m right next to my arm, to see if it works… Are there any other special considerations that you need to make when you’re doing an outdoor show? Cuz that’s already a lot. There’s daylight, nighttime, the immensity of the stage and the color of the stage washing things out.

Edith: Yeah. Um, definitely because it’s a summer show, heat. For this show, I’m not doing leather jackets, but we’re doing leather vests to help reduce the amount of heat absorption or like the heat that’s being created within the human body. Since I’m not sure how long they’re gonna be in these vests onstage, and I just didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. A lot of the stuff that they’re wearing is gonna be short sleeved or one layered. So it has to be visually interesting. Texture wise is also something I considered for this one. Having texture, having prints, having color, all of those things go into it. Working with Jasmyn and doing the logos, we had to make something that was gonna be clear and concise so at least you can see that there’s something on there, even if you’re not close up, but we just didn’t want it to be like a blob because there are some really cool designs that are very much fifties and condensed and close together, but from a distance, it can look like a block. So we had to find creative ways to make it so you could at least understand that there’s something there in it. It’s not just a bulk of things. So, yeah.

Breana: So Jasmyn is one of our Administrative Assistants here and she’s helping you design logos for like the school, the Burger Palace Boys, Pink Ladies, everything like that?

Edith: Yea! Because my brain capacity can only go so far.

Breana: That’s cool.

Edith: For this one, yeah.

Keenan: One of the things I wanted to ask, kind of with those different groups in mind, um, how are you creating kind of like these…? So this show has a couple of different social groups. There’s obviously the Pink Ladies, the Burger Palace Boys, and then Rydell High as well. How do you represent different groups of people with costumes and make them very distinct from each other while making them feel like they’re kind of cut from the same cloth, so to speak? They all fit in this show still?

Edith: Yeah. I think that kind of lean into more of like where my color ranges are going. So, color. One of the exercises I used to do all the time when I was in school was take two colors, two hues, mix it with black and white, and see what you get. And that helps kind of contain how far I’m gonna go out of this. Um, so color is very much the big thing and then also silhouette as well. Silhouette’s gonna help a little bit more with this. With the different groups too, we also talk about personalities, and I use actually the actor’s own personalities and the way they carry themselves to kind of help me better influence the costumes. So I take a lot of extra steps to understanding them as well as understanding how they will be portrayed on this stage. And then working with Kendra to make sure we have a plan of what we want to see with these ensemble characters more specifically, cuz I feel like they are the backbone to every show. And oftentimes in other places it can be that they are, I don’t know, ensemble’s just always seen as ensemble, but I think that they’re way more than that. They’re the most chameleon of things cuz they can be anything or anyone you want them to be. We have one of our actors playing the teen angel, but he’s also a student at the school. So it’s about how to differentiate that. But we also very particular about who we have in those too. Because the teen angel, I think in the show is represented, he’s actually like a student and like Johnny Casino is also a student, but, cuz this is all like a dream… So we were very very careful about making those decisions, too.

Breana: Thinking back to your PowerPoint that you made for your original designer concept and how you were taking certain fifties either icons or styles, and then bringing them into certain characters…Did you wanna talk about any of those choices that you made?

Edith: Yeah, so obviously Elvis Presley has a whole movie coming. But he was one of the people who influenced that rock and roll vibe, leaning away from the gentleman’s look, the three piece suits and all that stuff. It was the first time that men didn’t really have to put on wool pants to go to work. You can wear jeans and a t-shirt and… They still put a lot of effort into their overall look, doing their hair and stuff. So hair plays a very big part in the men’s look for the show. So that’s also something I considered, same with James Dean and Marlon Brando. All of these three guys had a big platform as far as either their singing career or their acting career. So they influenced people. Cause that was the only way that they could get information about where fashion trends were going to, since not everybody had a TV in their homes. So a lot of these are influenced by people who have such a big influence with their fans. And if they see that women are geared towards that, men are gonna follow suit. So they’re gonna do all that. So it was that, including with the fact that cars were also being accessible and cars were becoming a job that people could do, especially men could do. And it was also a gateway to freedom. A lot of things were emerging from this war. So this war is actually like the thing that impacts how people dressed, especially men, they went from being three piece suits or even two piece suits to just being in jeans and t-shirt, and as much as it’s a very cute idea, um, but it’s also kind of sad because then you’re losing a little bit of that sophistication within men’s attire and not a whole lot of people were investing in their suits or investing in their overall appearance on a day-to-day base like they were in the thirties or the twenties or the forties. Yeah. The industry of Hollywood was also changing too. I mean, it was a time where you had Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, all these people who were just really big icons at that time. And the reason was because they had a platform that just pushed boundaries. Costume designers at that time were also influencing what fashion trends we were seeing, like how Edith Head worked with Alfred Hitchcock, and they worked with Grace Kelly and they introduced the Kelly bag, the Hermès bag, and that was something different because it was a huge bag that most women didn’t have. Cuz overall we would have like clutches or something, very small and dainty, but it was the first time you could have a big purse and stuff it in there and now I’m just like, that makes sense.

Breana: What about women’s fashion and those choices or influences?

Edith: So there was something really cool in an article I found in a Vogue article from that time. it was so Christian Dior was actually one of the first designers to start implementing different silhouettes in his collections. The quote was, “You could see two women walking down the street and know that they were different.” And that was actually pretty cool to hear because I mean, one girl could be in an, A line full skirt or circle skirt. And then the other one can be in pants. Pants are also being introduced as a common thing amongst women. So having versatility for women was exciting. And at that time, the fact that a big designer like Christian Dior could do that? That’s awesome. And that it was slowly starting to be introduced as well into Hollywood as well. So those kind of people helped influence how I was going to approach “Grease.” I also took into the fact that “Grease”, the movie was made in the 1970s. So there was a lot of like influences from the seventies kind of immersed into that, because if you see the Ferris wheel scene at the very end, when they’re gonna sing, “We Go Together,” there’s girls in shorts and all of these crop tops, but that wasn’t as common. And I was like, oh, that’s kind of interesting. It also influences color too. Black wasn’t a normal color for young girls to wear. And when I was looking at the movie, I saw that Cha-Cha was the only girl in black, and everybody else had like these pastel colors and the only other people wearing black were the men. And I think I was trying to understand why that was, and I think a lot of it had to do with like, she was daring. She just was embracing her sexuality, embracing who she was and knowing that she was on top. She also had Danny. So in this show I tried to make sure she was the only one in black. And up until prom scene, nobody should have any dark colors, at least imitating black until after prom. Cuz I also think of this show as being a dream. Like we all have hope and excitement before we graduate. We’re all ready. And then I think once prom happens, we start to hit that reality moment where we’re like, oh, we’re about to hit real life. And we have no idea what’s coming. I approach that too with the women’s clothing, and making sure that we start with skirts and then we kind of end more into pants and more girls embracing the pants. So yeah, that’s how it’s going.

Keenan: And then it’s the same kind of progression of pastels to darker colors for women’s costumes as well?

Edith: Yeah. Trying to incorporate that, but still keeping it vibrant. Cuz I didn’t want everybody to be in the dark.

Breana: You talked a little bit about how the movie brought influences from the seventies to the fifties, where the story is set. Is there anything from today’s look that’s reinterpreted in a 50s style or…?

Edith: Yeah. High wasted stuff is coming back and crop tops. Those are all things that are there. And I think the whole entire lapels thing too, on women’s shirts, like we also have like collared shirts now. Those are also making a comeback and they’re just, they’re actually easier to access now. So that’s been nice about this whole process with the show, um, is that a lot of these styles are on trend. Um, and that there is a whole market for them and women are out there, you know, progressively embracing the fifties style, but in such a fun fashioned way where the prints are a little bit out there. They’re not like the typical ones from that time, simply because I think at the time in the fifties, they were barely starting to understand polyester and understanding you could put pigmentation into polyester and create all these wild prints, which is why the seventies were so bright. So that’s the cool thing about modern day wear is like, because it’s now more accessible in a variety of things, color is definitely one of them, and it was pretty exciting for me to find, and I was like, oh, thank God.

Breana: Do you have a favorite fashion from the fifties?

Edith: Um, I don’t know. I don’t really have a favorite fashion trend, but I have to say, I think what I like the most about women’s fashion in this time period is like the silhouette of it. I do like the, actually the A line skirt, um, the A line circle skirt, sorry. Just cuz they’re fun. And they’re less constricting.

Breana: Do you have a favorite part of costuming the show? Like what has been your favorite part or…?

Edith: Um, prom dresses for this one has been fun. I was in contact with a person who has a vintage shop in Oregon, and he had a lot of vintage prom dresses from the fifties. But I kind of dipped into a little bit of the eighties with this one, just for color sake. And it was just fun to kinda interact with somebody who was just like, I have all these options. Once he found out that I was doing this for a show, he was excited. And he was very, very helpful. And then when I found another place that does fifties inspired prom dresses, I got even more excited cuz it caters to a wide variety of sizes, which is hard to find and I am a person who likes to be inclusive to the process of everyone being included and not feeling like they are a burden. Um, so that’s kind of been one of my favorite parts to do prom and have exciting dresses for almost all of these girls. And that’s just been fun.

Keenan: How many prom dresses do you have to supply for this show?

Edith: I think I have 19 girls. I have 19 girls and I only have to do 18 because Sandy’s not in it.

Keenan: Oh, Sandy skips the prom.

Edith: She skips the prom, but she’s still onstage. She’s just in a night gown.

Keenan: Perfect.

Edith: Um, simple.

Breana: How we all wanted to go to prom.

Keenan: Well, thank you very much!

Edith: You’re welcome

Breana: That was so good.

Keenan: Excited to see the fruit of your labor onstage at the Ledge! July 21st through 23rd. Bye everyone!

Breana: The fruit of your labor!?

Keenan: Sorry I said that…

Breana: For 25 years. GREAT Theatre has been transforming lives through the power of the arts. As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, GREAT Theatre is known for its Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts, as a leader in youth arts experiences through Central Minnesota, and for its commitment to community partnerships. It’s the generosity of our community of volunteers, donors, participants, artists, and audiences that make GREAT possible to learn more about GREAT Theatre visit GREATTheater.org.