From Macbeth to The Little Mermaid, Vincent Scassellati has designed costumes for countless productions, and he’s been doing it for 50 years.
English literature isn’t a usual road into costume design. And you might think that a man who has devoted his entire adult life to creating costumes would have played tons of dress-up as a kid, putting on plays in the backyard. Not so for Vincent Scassellati. The venerable costume designer at the equally venerable Kansas City Costume Company, Scassellati only got into making clothes in graduate school.
That was back in Pennsylvania, where Scassellati got a bachelor’s degree in English literature at King’s College. It wasn’t until he went to Penn State and pursued a master’s degree in theater arts that he was bitten by the sewing bug.
“When I started out in college, I wanted to be an actor,” he said. “That’s what everybody wants.”
Things changed when he was cast in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He got a call to visit the costume shop for some measurements.
“Ooh, measurements,” he thought. “This must be the big time!”
When he got to the shop, though, he found that no one knew what was going on.
“These two faculty wives were sort of standing around with all this black fabric, totally clueless about what was supposed to be done,” he said. “So I kind of looked at it and said, ‘Why don’t you do it like this? Cut it this way and hang it this way.’”
Carl Wagner, the school’s theater department director, saw that Scassellati had a gift. “He asked ‘How would you like to design the next play?’”
With that, a behind-the-scenes star was born. After graduation, Scassellati taught for a year at another small college in the Keystone State, then found his way to Kansas City, and a job at UMKC. Soon he rose to be head of the university’s costume design program. He also acted as resident costume designer for the Missouri Repertory Theatre, now Kansas City Repertory, from its founding in 1964 until he retired in 1999.
But 35 years of teaching and creating wasn’t enough. In 2000, he joined the KC Costume Company, and hasn’t stopped working yet.
Over the past 15 years, Scassellati has designed for Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Ballet, Heartland Theatre, and regional theaters from Atlanta to Michigan. In all, he has made costumes for more than 250 professional productions across the country, creating shows that range from Cats to King Lear.
Many of those costumes still live at KC Costume Company, just north of Union Station in the Crossroads, where just walking around is a fanciful experience. Dozens of racks are stuffed with costumes from every imaginable production. Glenda the Good Witch hangs next to Tevye from Fiddler, who’s next to Alice in Wonderland. It feels like a theater museum. It’s a world overflowing with gauze, silk, satin, velvet, leather, linen and tweed, dripping with every sort of bangle, bauble, and spangle.
Scassellati, in an office crammed with picture books from ceiling to floor, talked about his process. Behind him, two stuffed flamingos lay atop a metal file cabinet.
“First,” he said, “I go to the script, obviously. Read the play several times, get some information about what’s happening in the play, about the characters, the number of characters and so forth. Then there are discussions with the directors and producers about what they see the play being. What do they want this play to say to an audience member? Then we want to make that more specific, in terms of how are we going to make this. What do you see the visual elements being in order to produce the image that you have of this play?”
Once Scassellati has a general notion of what the play is about, he and his team get to work. They look at endless photographs and drawings. They ponder and sketch, make patterns, cut, sew and decorate.
His favorite shows tend to be fanciful or frilly – where there’s lot of work to do. He loves Shakespeare, and had a blast with Hairspray, playing at the New Theatre through July 12, for instance. That’s as opposed to Our Town, where the wardrobe is plain by design.
Like any good artist, though, Scassellati is most satisfied when a mental image comes to life.
“The best part is when the idea, the picture, the vision I had in my mind happens on stage. But,” he laughed, “That doesn’t always happen.”
When the show is over, everything goes into the warehouse costume shop, into what Scassellati imagines as sort of suspended animation.
“When it’s over, it’s over. And they don’t have any meaning anymore. Costumes have meaning only when they are on an actor. That’s when they’re costumes. Off the stage, off the actor, they’re nothing but clothes.”
Is there one thing the general public doesn’t understand about what he does?
“Well,” he said, “I think generally it’s the technical aspects of it, of what we do. It’s the amount of time that goes into the sewing, the construction, the details that are required to make the costume look like the sketch says it should look. It’s all sort of the mechanical things that people don’t see.”
All of this is created with an intellectual rigor. For instance, if a dress dates from a time when dresses were closed with buttons, Scassellati would not make it with a zipper. Even if that zipper were something the audience would never see.
“All of that is an aid to the actors,” he said. “If they’re not comfortable with one thing in their costume, that’s an issue. But all those sort of details, the period details of the costume, can somehow make them comfortable. It’s a subtle thing for them. They aren’t often able to verbalize it, but I think they feel differently when the clothes have, say, buttons instead of zippers.”
Those details wouldn’t matter, though, if Scassellati didn’t bring something more to this work. Beyond all the technical expertise, research and erudition, there’s something more subtle at work – a seemingly effortless ability to know how a fabric will behave on stage.
“You have to develop, over a period of time, the ability to feel a piece of fabric and know what it’s going to do. You might pick up a piece of fabric and say ‘No, that’s the wrong fabric for this particular costume’ and they say ‘Why?’ and (I respond) ‘I don’t know, I can feel that it’s wrong’”
Maybe though, that feel for fabric isn’t a learned skill, and that’s the quality he showed at Penn State all those decades ago. Maybe, like a musician with an inherently sensitive ear, Scassellati was just born with it.