Costuming the Presidents

For the past 20 years, Julie Ziff has been behind the scenes of the Charleston theater community. More appropriately, behind the seams. For Ziff, costuming shows has become a passion since retiring from her day job in New York City years ago. Knowing that she was wanted to go into costuming, Ziff took theater classes at The New School in NYC and shipped down to Charleston to start her new career—one that keeps her incredibly busy. Currently, the designer is costuming two shows for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”  The good news, she may be busy, but it’s easy to find her: in the costume shop.

How did you get involved with this theatre?
Julie Ziff: I did a show for Keely Enright (founder and producing artistic director of The Woolfe Street Playhouse)  when we were downtown at the Midtown Theatre and then when they decided to start their own theater company, she asked me to come and work with them.

How did you get into costume design?
Ziff: Well I moved down here from New York City and I retired from my day job. And, right before I left I went to The New School and I took an acting class, a set design class and a directing class because I wanted to do costumes, but I thought I don’t even know the language. So, I took those classes right before I left and when I came down here, my younger daughter was in the theater so I started making costumes for the theater company she was with. I have done costumes for almost everyone in town and then I met Keely and Dave and started working for them full time.

What was the daily wear of the 19th century politician and their cohorts? What were people wearing back then?
Ziff: Suits. Well, you know, clothes haven’t changed too much over the years. So, it’d be a shirt and tie, and a vest and a jacket with maybe a hat.

What about the women?

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).

Julie Ziff (right) and Keely Enright (left, producting artistic director of the Woolfe Street Playhouse).


Ziff: Well, a dress. I’m not sure if it was a bustle dress at that point or just a hoop skirt, but it was big clothes and a lot of layers, too.

Have you interpreted the costumes from the original Broadway show?
Ziff: We of course have that available as a resource and since it is such a recent show, it has more of an influence on us than if we were just creating it from scratch, but we always like to do our own thing.

So how did you do your own thing?
Ziff: Well, Keely, Josh [Wilhoit, Director of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson] and I met together and we talked about what the colors are, what is the feeling we want here? I meet all of the actors so I sort of know body sizes and what they look like, so it  springs from that. We think about what works in our theater because we’re not off Broadway, we’re not Broadway; we have a stage that isn’t deep.

What do you think is the biggest challenge when designing costumes?
Ziff: In this type of theater where you have maybe a four-to-six week run, you have to make the costume substantial enough so it will last the run but you can’t afford to make it substantial enough so that it’s really there forever.

Have you ever been inspired to veer away from a traditional costume and make it your own?
Ziff: Yes, they let me do that a lot. It’s very collaborative here.

What has been your craziest costume designing experience?
Ziff: Maybe “Urinetown” was one of our more creative from a costume standpoint because we just did all black, white and grey and we used red as the accent color. Everybody had something red.

What was the reasoning behind that?
Ziff: The set was a cinderblock outhouse that they were using and we just wanted to make it more dramatic. It was such a great musical and we wanted to be able to pull on the drama of it.

What is your favorite part about doing costume design?
Ziff: Every play is its own entity. You have about a month to research everything, decide what you’re going to do and then you have two weeks to make them and then they’re up for a month and you start all over. So, it’s very creative and very fun.

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About Josh Austin

As an arts journalist and theater junkie, Josh's passion happens to be theater criticism. Spoleto Festival USA ends Josh's year as a Graduate student earning his master's degree from Syracuse University in the Goldring Arts Journalism Program. Determined to be an arts writer or a dedicated nonprofit employee for a theater, Josh has made this past year all about writing and working with theaters. Since last July, Josh has taken on the roles of editor-in-chief of GreenRoomReviews.com (a regional criticism blog), regional editor and critic for Broadwayworld.com, editorial assistant for The Post-Standard (Syracuse's regional newspaper) and he happily interned at Backstage Magazine in New York City.

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