Sustainability in Theater: Costumes with Moyenda Kulemeka

Blog: Sustainability in Theater: Costumes with Moyenda Kulemeka

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Detroit ’67 costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka set out to find authentic 1960s pieces to take audiences back in time for the play. We talked to her about some of her favorite pieces and how to shop vintage stores like an expert.

1. What are some of your favorite vintage finds from Detroit ’67 and where did you find them?

Almost all of the jewelry in Detroit ’67 was authentic vintage, along with several of the men’s shirts, women’s blouses, and one pair of black kitten heels that looked straight out of Eartha Kitt’s closet. It’s so hard for me to pick favorites because I genuinely love every piece that I put onstage (or on film in this case). Most of the vintage pieces came from my own personal costume hoard stock, thrift stores, Signature’s beautiful stock, and my favorite vintage boutiques Suffragette City Vintage in Hyattsville, MD and Bespoke Not Broke in Takoma Park, MD.

2. What are your thoughts on sustainability in costuming, for example using local thrift stores and resell sites like Facebook Marketplace?

I am by no means an expert in sustainability in costuming – but I love love LOVE thrift stores and they are usually the first place I go hunting for costume pieces (and for my own clothing). There are so many times when I come across a piece in a thrift store that is something I never would have thought to design, but is SO perfect for the character. Especially with period pieces like Detroit ’67 – nothing compares to authentic vintage and it is such a rush and thrill to find that “diamond in the rough” piece at a thrift store. I have never used Facebook Marketplace, but I frequently use Instagram and Etsy to buy vintage online. The great thing about resell sites and boutiques when it comes to vintage clothing is that they’ve already done so much of the leg-work of finding authentic pieces, so it’s easier to find exactly what you’re looking for. Resellers also take the time to carefully curate their vintage collections, so oftentimes you’re getting “the best of the best” in selection.

3. What’s your favorite part of restoring vintage pieces?

The thrill of the before vs. after – giving new life to something that seemed “dingy” or “discarded” and making it beautiful again. I also just love the idea of clothing having “lived a life” and what it means for it to have a new life, the opportunity to make new memories, see new things, experience new places. I recently donated some shoes that I took on a trip to Paris in 2017 and it makes me smile to think about the memories that those shoes carried me through, and what other memories they might witness. I’m currently in the process of restoring some of my great-grandmother’s 1920s-30s cocktail dresses and the whole experience it feels like I’m getting to know her in her youth – who she was before she was even someone else’s wife, let alone great-grandmother.

4. What’s the most challenging part of using vintage pieces in a show?

The fragility of some of the pieces, and the fact that they cannot be easily replaced, if at all. I’ve had to learn to be very selective about which vintage pieces actually make it into a given production, vintage shoes almost never make the final cut. The fact that Detroit ’67 was filmed gave us an advantage because the vintage pieces in it only had to survive the days of filming, instead of a traditional 4+ week run.

5. Do you have any advice for our followers in identifying vintage pieces if they’re on the hunt in a thrift store?

Go in with an open mind and be ready to spend time sifting through the racks. Pay attention to the label and its design – if you’re looking for pre-1980s vintage, look for labels that say “union-made” and/or “Made in USA”. Union-made labels often have the dates printed on them, and if it’s union-made in America – you can be sure it’s been made to last. Labels are probably the easiest way to identify if something is vintage, as there are several online databases dedicated to dating garments based on their labels. The lack of a label is sometimes a good indicator of something vintage as well, since this could mean the garment was homemade. One of my favorite thrift store vintage finds is a green 1960s homemade maternity dress that was clearly made with Simplicity pattern #7558 (image attached). I actually ended up using that dress in 1st Stage’s production of Trying some years after I’d bought the dress, and it was perfect for the character. I have an affinity for 1950s/1960s vintage dresses, so I also like to look at zippers. A metal zipper in a dress is a pretty good indicator that it was made before 1965.

Detroit ’67 closes September 16.

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