I sleep three feet away from a girl with red hair.
She sleeps haphazardly, the mottled blue covers between her legs, one foot hanging off the mattress, mattress pad always askew. I fall asleep many nights with my eyelids muting the electric light of her computer screen. She is probably watching Mad Men.
This is Juliet Charnas. This spring she costumed her 18th and 19th shows at Stanford, making her the most prolific costume designer within the realm of student theater during her four years. She has worked on everything from Hairspray and Les Miserables to bacchae, Next to Normal, Gaieties, Rhinoceros, and All My Sons.
For most friends, we learn of each others’ pasts slowly, cobbling together a narrative flung across time, trying to place that family drama before this relationship and that funny story. Before we sat down to talk costumes, I had never heard Juliet’s complete path, having only pieced together hints of her passion from beneath her humble, and at times self-deprecating, exterior. There is a self-professed comic bent to her experiences, which she peddles in bite-sized, absurd anecdotes.
“I had this unfortunate incident with horseback riding lessons at this place called Golden Gate Stables, where supposedly I killed two horses,” she explained when I asked why she started sewing. She spared no details in her description of Rainbow, “who was everyone’s favorite” and on whom she was the last to ride, and Calvin, who “tripped over a root, fell, broke his leg and had to be shot.”
“I was done with horseback riding,” Juliet said. But her mother realized that the young, energetic Juliet needed an activity, ideally something to do with her hands. In school, Juliet would draw all over her arms, legs, and notebooks. One teacher told her she had horror vacui, the Greek compulsion to fill empty space. Sewing seemed the perfect outlet.
Juliet began lessons in second grade with “this darling woman named Elia,” who helped her follow the yearnings of her “crazy big imagination.” They started with dots on pieces of paper that Juliet would have to match with her stitches, moved on to teddy bears and tote bags, and eventually to a pair of massive plush dice stuffed with beans and a taco the size of a loveseat. The first pieces of clothing she made were “fucking ugly”—a tank top made of white and black faux silk for her bat mitzvah, and matching mother-daughter red velvet circle skirts for her mother’s anniversary.
But fashion seemed a superficial pursuit full of snobby people and arbitrary design choices—“Someone decides the color of the year is blue, and then everyone has to follow that,” Juliet said. “Every little girl wants to be a fashion designer and it’s just a load of shit.”
Instead, Juliet looked to the old movies her mother screened every weekend since she was young for inspiration.
“I grew up looking at these amazing, amazing clothes. The nipped-in waist, the full skirt, the string of pearls, the full-length gloves,” she said. Her voice rose and fell with each gesture, eventually trailing off as if these simple words don’t quite express the depth of her reverence. This was beauty, draped around the bodies of 30s, 40s, and 50s classic Hollywood starlets—not the $700 ripped up jeans making their way down the runway.
Now, she’s seen everything except for Psycho, which her mother refused to show. But her all time favorite movie is All About Eve, and she loves anything costumed by classic designer Edith Head, who went to Stanford and was the inspiration for Edna, the short and sassy costume designer in the animated movie The Incredibles.
Juliet emulates Edith Head in her design aesthetic, which she describes as “crisp, clean, well-fitted, classic silhouettes”—in other words, timeless.
But having joined the theater world since coming to Stanford, Juliet never gets to do exactly what she wants, instead working within the constraints of a script and within the vision of a director, who range from dictatorial to collaborative in style.
“I need that guidance,” she said, emphasizing the strange freedom she finds within such limitations. “I love novels and I love movies and I love stories and I love getting to read a script and pull out the character details. I love that transition from script to clothing.”
Even more exciting is working within a tight budget. For Next to Normal, Juliet took $50 and turned it into more than 20 costumes. The scavenger hunt entailed rummaging through bins at vintage and thrift stores, borrowing items of clothing from friends and acquaintances, and making pieces herself.
Alison Gold, who directed Next to Normal and who is also close friends with Juliet, has worked with her on two other shows as well.
“I’ve never worried for a second that the costumes wouldn’t be perfect,” she said. “She takes your vision and takes it further.”
“It is a constant joy to work with Juliet, because unlike many student-artists, she puts her true passion first,” said Jake Friedler, who worked with Juliet on bacchae, where she was the head designer. “You can trust that she will always have time to go the extra mile, to make that extra run to Joann’s, to fulfill every last detail of her own artistic vision.”
After graduating, Juliet will attend the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles—and she never plans to do theater again (unless one of her director-friends convinces her.)
“What the actors wear depends on how long they have to change and how fast they have to change,” Juliet explained. “What we do in theater a lot, partially because we don’t have the money or we don’t have time or it’s Stanford and no one’s is going to know—I call it ‘schmeriod’.”
Juliet is forced to do this loose interpretation of period because she has limited resources and an audience that doesn’t know the difference. But this isn’t acceptable in the film world. Some historian from the art deco society will send you hate mail if you’re off by a year, she jokes.
“The stuff I’m more attracted to is simpler and more refined and focuses on smaller details, and that’s not something that caters to theater well. You can’t see it from the audience. With film, they can zoom in on a dress and you can see the back and you can see the ruching and every little thing matters.”
She sees an intimate connection between clothes and character, the private stitching against your skin indicative of a refined truth, the shrug of your jacket a gesture she can comprehend. This is a sensuous art, the externalization of identity.
Television enables this minute subtlety. Characters arch over dozens, even hundreds, of episodes, becoming living canvases for costume designers who aim to parallel characters’ transition in their clothes.
Juliet was able to emulate this kind of character arch in her designs for Rhinoceros, directed by Laura Petree, which she costumed during fall of her junior year.
“There’s this whole fascist undertone that we worked into the clothes,” she said. “They started out vibrant and they slowly morphed into cream and beige and muted green. I don’t know if people caught onto it in the audience but I was so happy watching the transition.”
For that show, Laura also needed 20 rhino heads. In order to finish the massive amount of work, Juliet, who was an RA in Soto last year, employed her freshmen to make the structurally complex masks.
“They were so mad when they found out it was for a show,” she laughed. “I’m never forgiving [Laura].”
Rhino heads are far from the strangest costume Juliet has been asked to fabricate. Last summer, she worked at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the company that made the Muppets and Sesame Street characters and now creates animatronic puppets, among other things. She drove around LA that summer picking up animal teeth or searching for the right color fur for an animatronic Grumpy Cat, destined for Lifetime movie fame. At Stanford, she made the Oregon mascot’s duck butt for this year’s Gaieties, beaded dozens of rave bracelets and constructed a mirror crown for bacchae, and stuffed and sewed two fat suits for Hairspray.
Juliet described the fat suits as “the bane of my existence.” The night she finally finished one, she decided to throw her own kind of celebration. On went the fat suit, making the couch in our room in Kairos even more comfortable. Don Draper and Peggy Olson accompanied her into the early morning hours–though she declined to say just how long they spent together that night.
The late nights spent fabricating the cloth of her vision are only the beginning. For Hairspray, she spent eight to twelve hours in Memorial Auditorium before rehearsal even began.
“It was a very conscious choice I had to make along the way: do I want to be able to do three shows a quarter, and what do I have to sacrifice for that,” she said. “I realized that sewing makes me so, so, so happy, that even though I might have to stay up a little later working on a paper, even if I can’t feel my fingers because I’ve been sewing too many hours, at the end of the day that’s what makes me the happiest. Whatever it takes to do it—I’m fine with that.”
After years of working behind the scenes, Juliet receives credit in programs and gets paid in more commissions. During her four years at Stanford, she has worked with every theater group except one, and works with the same directors and actors again and again.
“One of my favorite parts about costuming is what it does to the actors when they put on their clothes. There’s this incredible transition,” she said. “For some actors, the minute they get their costume on, it kind of brings out this whole new energy that they haven’t been able to tap into.”
Despite her deep passion for costuming, Juliet is the first to acknowledge that she has overcommitted herself. In the frenetic rush up to opening night, she’ll be sewing so much that she won’t notice when she’s pricked her finger and her work gets covered in blood. But that’s when her dedication to friendships pays off. Over the years, her friends have learned when to step in, whether that’s ironing pants for two hours (the poor guy didn’t turn the iron on), bringing her food, beading bracelets, or sewing felt letters onto shirts at four in the morning.
On the Thursday of finals week last quarter, she was in the middle of costuming Hairspray. With more than 30 costumes to alter one day before she left for spring break, Juliet asked for help.
“I’m sewing and I haven’t slept and I haven’t eaten and I’m bleeding on all the clothes because my fingers are so torn up,” she remembered. “I think throughout the day maybe 15 people shuffled in and out and all helped me.”
I know this girl—the girl who wakes up at 5 a.m. some days to finish take-home midterms because she’s devoting the rest of her time to clothing characters—both fictional and otherwise. I see the vast numbers of people who place their trust in her, who know that she will put down her needle and thread if they need a comforting hug. They orbit her, drawn to the gravitational force of her being, to the unconditional care she radiates.
My theory is that she clothes people too, wraps them in the dark sweaters she loves, lends them scarves, sends them on their way assured their bodies are encased in protection, swaddled with her kind of selfless love.
I resist her sometimes because I see her spread herself thin. Her clothes are for other people, I try to convince myself, and other fictions. But I am assured enough by her presence, three feet away, cradled by her favorite extra large tank top and boxers while strings of pearls and full skirts dance in her dreams.
Photo credits: James Huynh, Frank Chen, Elliot Serbin, and Yuto Wantanabe