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Playing Dress-Up Was My Job … So Who Was I?

Costume Change by NatalieAnn Rich
Illustration by NatalieAnn Rich

If you ever happen upon page 502 of the September 2006 issue of Vogue, you’ll find me shoehorned into the left corner of the photograph. I’m standing in profile, hair covering all but my nose, which is buried inside a cloth-bound book.

Okay, you really have to squint. But I’m there. I have a copy of the issue (as does my mother) to prove it.

At the time I was working as an assistant to a fashion stylist named Frances, whom Vogue had hired to help with a “design-in-action”-type profile of a new designer who specialized in austere, monochromatic clothes. The shoot took place in her two-story atelier. After Frances had selected looks for the designer and two models, the photographer began placing his subjects around the the sparse white studio. Then he noticed something he didn’t like.

“There’s like, no freaking color to this shot. At all,” he said. He looked around the room for inspiration that might remedy this aesthetic flaw. “Red dress,” he said to me.

“Lisa,” I corrected him. Frances admonished me with one raised eyebrow.

“Go on.” The photographer jerked his head toward the set. “To the back. Back up a bit more? One more half step—okay.”

“But she can’t just stand there. Someone get her a book or something.” His assistants hastily turned up a book—mine. “Okay, this is looking good everybody. Let’s shoot this!”

The book is open flat against my palms, hymnal-like, casting a shadow of rebuke over the cartoonish flowers propagating shamelessly across my red dress. That dress. Vintage, pilling, a tad too snug above the empire waist and a tad too billowy below—the frock was in rotation far longer than it deserved. It was an item no fashion editor would wear, but it’s the reason I’m in the picture. It’s also a regrettably accurate depiction of my life then: an interloper loitering on the edge of a glamorous fashion tableau, dorkily attending to her book while everyone else looks—well, cool.

I had always liked clothes, but what I really loved were costumes. As a little kid, my favorite game was dress-up. I was the youngest child of divorced psychologists, so between the double serving of Christmas presents and the sibling hand-me-downs, my ample alone time was easily occupied by a black trunk stuffed with costumes. Frothy tulle concoctions, old prom gowns, 60s-era tie-dyed shirts, shiny leotards, old nylons, wreaths of pearls and biting clip-on earrings—the less pragmatic, the better. Dressed in these get-ups, I imagined an imaginary emcee tilting his microphone my way, intoning, “And who are you today?” It was a question I enjoyed so much I asked it well into my late 20s.

The black trunk’s contents were not dissimilar to the stash of wardrobe paraphernalia I collected years later for my “stock,” the term stylists use for the personal arsenal of accessories and costumes they take from set to set. Still, I had not set out to dress other people for a living. When I started college, I had not even heard of such a thing. During my first semester, in an effort to hide the traces of a Manic Panic dye job, I bought a wide yellow head-wrap made of a stretchy knit and decorated with silvery threads that curled away at the crown of my head like frisée. A new school friend said I had “creative flair,” and would I like to do costumes for her student film club? I told her I would love to, and continued to wear my head-wrap, even after I’d glimpsed its intended function—a tube top—on a slender girl dancing at a club one night.

That weekend I was inducted into the magic of spirit gum and topstick, iron-on hems and hidden buttons. I learned that if the camera doesn’t see it, it doesn’t matter. An actor playing a wealthy banker could wear sweatpants if he pleased, so long as only his jacket and tie were in frame.

The following year I chose Intro to Costume Design as my elective, though as I dragged a stool to the scarred drafting table in the paint-splattered room tucked above the campus black-box theater, I sensed I was out of place among the serious design majors, pencils tucked behind their dyed hair, paintbrushes and pastel trays arranged before them. Our professor, Rafael, sat at the head of the table with his arms folded, white t-shirt glowing against his impossible tan.

We would be graded on a series of “unrealized projects,” Rafael explained. Like real designers, we would fill binders with pictorial research, source fabrics, create mood boards and present watercolor renderings of our finished designs. But “unrealized” meant that our costumes would never be constructed. We would be graded only on our artistry and ideas.

“Ambitious,” Rafael said, leaning over the gobs of gluey paint that comprised my rendering of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I winced at the dreaded adjective, invoked in writing workshops when a student submitted a story that sucked. I abandoned watercolor—and, in time, colored pencils, pastels, charcoal and markers. Once, in desperation, I attempted etching into clay tablets as designs for an unrealized Aida. I made the markings too deep and the tablets cracked in my hands as I presented them before the class.

Rafael gave me a final option: collage. As I sat on my bedroom rug, scissors hacking away at magazines and newspapers until the disenfranchised images assembled themselves on the oaktag as my own design, I knew I had found my medium. I was meant not to make images, but to reconstruct them.

After college, on a lark, I took an internship in the fashion department of NYLON magazine, sure that one more goof-off summer was just what I needed before “real life” began. Instead, I met Frances: British, reedy, with fluffy brown hair, she called to mind a dandelion tucked into leather boots. Working with her thrilled me, but it also brought out a strange affectation, an amalgamation of tropes stored in my brain—part Juliet’s Nurse, part sassy sidekick—I couldn’t help but assume in her presence. Despite the fact that I had no background in fashion, Frances took a shine to me, and I assisted her for the next four years.

I wandered through fake bedroom sets built on soundstages and green-screened city backdrops, through different eras, disappearing into some invented character and coming out on the other side unsure of who had been changed by the experience.

Assisting Frances gave way to styling jobs on my own. Over the years, working on fashion shoots, commercials and movies, I ushered an actor through a costume change in the middle of the Mississippi swamplands. I was escorted via bodyguard to the VIP bathroom at the Pyramid in Las Vegas while “documenting” a supermodel’s life. I rolled a lint-brush over an entertainer’s suit steps away from several disgruntled bison, whose sanctuary we’d just traipsed through to find the best shot. I wandered through fake bedroom sets built on soundstages and green-screened city backdrops, through different eras, disappearing into some invented character and coming out on the other side unsure of who had been changed by the experience. I was a grown-up playing pretend.

Susan Sontag has noted the danger lurking behind the intimacy forged between the photograph and its viewer. The picture is too powerful, with the potential to become “a maxim or proverb,” one static image summarizing human experience. But what about those of us behind the scenes, who have helped construct the image? It’s an arresting prospect—the ability to frame out that which does not fit; to escape not in the picture, but in its construction.

Having spent so many years inhabiting the made-up lives of characters, I can’t pinpoint the moment when all play began to feel like all work. Dreamlike, fuzzy details float forth: the times I put cookies in the kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt and snuck into the photo studio’s bathroom to eat them in peace. The intermittent day jobs I had to work to make ends meet, at clothing stores or cafes, only to lose them the next time I got hired for a long project. (One such restaurant, Bar Pitti, was popular with the fashion crowd, and many nights I waited on people I’d worked alongside the week before or even earlier that day.) Or the time Frances called me to say she’d been hired to style two newscasters for a promo ad announcing their new morning show on Fox News.

“Awesome!” I squealed. I’d never imagined that this would be my response to a request to work for Fox News, but it had been a dry spell and I knew the network would pay us well and quickly.

Most proud New Yorkers will insist that no amount of money could convince them to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I am here to tell you that there is in fact an amount, and that amount is $1,000. I tossed out this exorbitant day rate when I got asked to style a commercial shoot for Papa John’s Pizza because I was sure that the production company hiring me would negotiate. When they didn’t, I took it as a sign that I’d finally “made it.”

In the Hard Rock Café’s greenroom, I set up my collapsible rack and hung up Papa’s white, black and red turtleneck options.

“Gosh, it’s really hard to pick,” Papa said.

We went with the red. In between shots, I coaxed a ring of makeup from the collar while Papa was getting touched up. At midnight, confetti burst into the sky over 7th Avenue. As everyone cheered and hugged, Papa beckoned me over for a photo op with his family. I shook my head politely.

He trotted over and pulled me into the shot. “Aw, c’mon, Amy,” he pleaded in his Kentucky twang. “We’re like family now!”

This time, I didn’t offer a correction. I just smiled as the camera snapped, and there went another image out into the world. I’d add it to the others, cutting and pasting this little collage of myself, the ultimate unrealized project.

Three days later I moved to California.


This interview originally appeared in the Play issue. For more inspiring stories around Play, check out Look Ma, No Hands! Risky Playground Design and Upping the Ante: Jessica Walsh on Creative Play.