Eight Questions with New Costume Design Member Faculty Tilly Grimes
Meet new Costume Design faculty member Tilly Grimes.
Award-winning New York City-based theater artist Tilly Grimes joined a video interview wearing a white t-shirt and overalls. She says that she comes to costume design not from a love of fashion, which she has come to appreciate throughout her career, but rather from an interest in “the human experience and how we exist in our bodies and in clothes.”
Do you have a favorite project or a recurring theme in your work that you feel like you might continue at Bennington?
Tilly: Being a costume designer, you're inherently a collaborative contributing artist. So your work, for me anyway, is always in partnership with other people. The theme at the center of it is… the collaborative partnership. You're always meeting the humans in that room, whether it's the bodies you're putting clothes on ,or the director or your fellow designers. So it's never just about what my intention is—other than the general goal to support, facilitate, and create the story or the visual that we're working towards. At the core of it all is really the clothes that we're putting on the human body and supporting the human body and whatever character and visual movement that we're creating. So I suppose that's the theme in my work: really centralizing the humanity inside the costume.
Collaboration is a big theme here too. So you'll fit right in.
Tilly: I think so. Bennington is a college I would have liked to attend. And so I'm happy to be able to attend it as an "adult" and be a part of the communities that help support young people in their curiosity. I wouldn't necessarily want to "teach" in general, but I think because of how Bennington functions as a community and how it approaches education, it makes me feel excited to be in the room.
Tell a little bit about how you came to become a faculty member here.
Tilly: It's incredibly accidental, honestly. During the pandemic, when our industry was really shut down, my husband, a theater director, and I realized how much we liked having a home base. Theater can be pretty nomadic, and the pandemic offered us the opportunity to realize how much we enjoyed being together and making our work in our own space. And as we’ve just had a little boy, Oskar, we thought maybe this is a good time to begin that process.
So…very casually, my husband said Bennington was looking for a costume faculty member. And I remembered that when I was in secondary school—I went to a school run by an Indian philosopher whose approach to education was quite similar to Bennington’s—a faculty member from Bennington had visited, and she and I became good friends. She actually suggested I come as an undergrad.
When my husband saw the advert, I was like, "I remember that place. It's supposed to be cool." With a two-month-old and mid-redesign on my first big Broadway musical, we thought we'd apply! This was the Wednesday before the Friday when applications were due, so I was not expecting anything. During the interview, I noticed it was a really good fit, especially philosophically and artistically. And then, from a community standpoint, this is something that we've been really looking for. It's been incredibly lucky for us.
How is Bennington different, so far as you can tell right now, from the other places that you've taught?
Tilly: Bennington feels more like an educational community that I came from originally, which I'm really thrilled about. I've never been at home at other universities where I went to to teach. It's always been a lot more "normal" and academically centric and grade orientated and less about discussion and nurturing curiosity but more about checking the boxes. And certainly, having a little boy and thinking about what I value in education, it's about trying to foster and nurture curiosity and making one's own market measurement of what one is curious to explore and find.
You know how interdisciplinary Bennington is. I wonder how you foresee costume design interacting with the other areas of study?
Tilly: Costume design is such an interesting thing, because, really, what we do is we study humans. You're sort of an anthropologist, and that anthropology manifests in what they are choosing to put on their body. But it relates to how the fabric is made and how we get the fashion. We'll look at a range of cultures, the scope of history, and then how all that becomes clothing. So it really, for me, crosses over with anything to do with cultural history and sociology and psychology. That’s all before you even get into theater, before you even get into "what is design?" And design, generally, can be applied to anything. I talk to my brother, who works in user interface design. We talk about how he approaches the design process and how I approach a project; they're essentially the same language.
Bennington is known for faculty practitioners, who pursue their own work and use the courses that they offer as an opportunity to explore what they themselves are interested in. I wonder how you foresee marrying your own work with your teaching?
Tilly: Well, my husband and I often collaborate. The next show that I'm doing is a production of his on Broadway in New York City starring Danny Devito. And I'm going to centralize that text as the first half of our design class. So we'll read the text. As a team, we'll talk about it. We'll talk about the actors’ very individual body shapes. What does it mean to dress them? What does a research process look like? How does that conversation or collaboration work? What does it mean to create character in relationship to an actor? And I'm hoping we'll end up being able to take a field trip to a technical rehearsal and sit in the theater and watch how it all comes together. And, if we can time it all out, I would love to bring students backstage to the other show I have on Broadway, so they can see what the working infrastructure looks like. That's a little bit of how I'm hoping it will interlay. I’d also love to bring Moritz, my husband, into the class, so we can have a design conversation with a director and talk about how the director/designer collaboration can work.
What are you teaching during this first term?
Tilly: The design class I'm teaching—Clothing, Body, Context—is essentially walking through a design process. My hope is that we can design a family and talk about what's inside that family. How do you show class? How do you show status? How do you show that individuality? And what does that mean to put it on this body type versus that body type? And how do you communicate all of that without using words, but just using visuals? And then, as a group, we’ll create a culture where we can give each other feedback. What are you seeing? And how are you seeing that? So we can learn that overalls and white t-shirt mean a very different thing contextually on a different body or with a different set of eyes.
I am also teaching a class where we are going to essentially look at how different historical figures are depicted—Drawing Connections. So we'll look at how they dress themselves and how they are subsequently depicted, used as design inspiration, and represented, whether it's in The Simpsons, Japanese manga, or Renaissance art. We’ll learn about what they actually wore, draw the research, and design a garment inspired by all the iconography they inspired.
The last class is the Kimono project. We’ll explore a complete design process: what it means to have an emotional reaction to a stimulus and then take that emotional reaction from research into drawing all the way through to a finished garment. The reason I'm looking at what we call a T-shaped garment is because there are fewer curves in it. So if you're a beginner to sewing, you can understand how patterns come together pretty simply. And for people who are more competent in sewing, they can riff on a kimono in the way that Alexander McQueen does. So it creates a nice space for us all to join.
Each class represents a different approach to design. So if you take all three, you'll end up with a portfolio of different designs and approaches. If you take one, you'll come away with at least a window into the design process through one of those lenses. So I'm hoping the classes will be a place for some stimulation and delight.
Have you met any students? What do you think of them so far?
Tilly: I have one student doing a Field Work Term. They’re working with me on the next show that I'm designing and have a wonderful way of approaching asking questions…so refreshing and present and attuned and bright. And it's like, "wow, this is just my first encounter with what it means to engage with a young person who's at this college." I'm really excited for what's to come.
Grimes is an award-winning Irish/Greek theater, opera, and film designer based in New York. She received her MFA from New York University Tisch School of the Arts and has been a guest artist and guest designer at many prestigious colleges and universities. You can see her most recent work in Shucked!, a raucous rural comedy, on Broadway.