Costume maker or mad scientist?

Turning garbage into glorious gowns and scraps into showy skirts iswhat Doris Haidner-Seif does best, always with a hint of stagecraftadded.

Turning garbage into glorious gowns and scraps into showy skirts is what Doris Haidner-Seif does best, always with a hint of stagecraft added.

As Head of Wardrobe in York University’s Theatre Department in Toronto, Haidner-Seif has spent half her life teaching students how to take everyday clothes and turn them into visually arresting costumes worthy of a great performance.

If swirling dye vats, revving tools and ominous-sounding “respirators” seem like something you’d rather find in a factory than a studio, that’s because Haidner-Seif’s production space at York resembles a lair of mad science.

Coloured spools hang from a wall mount above industrial sewing machines and shelves filled with vibrant fabrics flank rows of work tables. Overhead, powerful lamps hang suspended like latticework, suggesting a place of intense concentration and creativity.

The 49-year-old instructor and creative designer has built costumes for performance houses like the Canadian Stage Company and the Theatre Francais in Toronto and says the key to making great costumes is to see beyond the ordinary and let a garment reveal itself from its humble roots.

“It’s just clothing until it becomes a costume. You need to leave yourself wide open and let the thing create itself,” she said.

Since 1985, Haidner-Seif has taught wardrobe design and managed York’s Costume Shop where students get to make every single costume or wardrobe accessory used in the school’s many student performance productions.

Haidner-Seif teaches students to draft patterns, take measurements correctly, cut fabric, plan their designs and think outside the box — a piece of scarf can become the trim on a luxurious dress or the tail of a stuffed toy can become a collar, for example.

With extremely limited budgets, imagination becomes a precious commodity as student designers have to visualize an impressive finished product matched together piecemeal from a pile of dreary old clothes and scraps of material.

Haidner-Seif feels it’s a beneficial rite of passage for students to learn to stretch a small budget by thinking creatively, especially since it prepares them for the realities of actual theatre production.
“You need to be able to see the potential in a piece of garbage. When you have nothing, you’re forced to be inventive,” she said.

In the 25 years she’s been teaching students how to create costumes, Haidner-Seif has seen nearly 1,000 of them walk through her doors and she considers them all a part of her family in one way or another. Her passion for teaching students is unmistakeable and she finds joy in passing her knowledge on to the next generation.

“They’re like my kids — I’m proud of them. The most rewarding part of all is that I’ve given a piece of myself to them,” Haidner-Seif said.

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