Evie Gurney became a costume designer after 15 years working in the fashion industry for brands including Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen. We caught up with Evie during rehearsals to learn more about the design process and inspiration for The Vortex costumes.
The Vortex was first performed in 1924, and the roaring twenties, as they came to be known, conjure up a lot of Gatsby-esque fashion; decadent and opulent, sequins and feathers. Do the costumes you’re creating take inspiration from the time the play was written or from other eras?
One of the things we’ve actively tried to avoid with this production is getting stuck in 1920’s stereotype. The sequins and feather flapper look is so familiar because it’s so aesthetically pleasing, but it can reduce our emotional connection to the characters because we don’t believe they’re people like us.
From the very beginning of the creative process, Dan [Raggett] and I were trying to emphasise the shock and the sleaze of the play and to make that feel as transgressive now as it would have done in 1924. We decided to look at the 1970s and another wild party generation and so it became the 1920s remixed with Studio 54.
How does the process begin and is it a collaborative one with other creatives in the company?
It starts with the director and the set designer creating the world of the play and establishing the time, place and atmosphere. I work within that framework to loosely sketch the characters based on the script and discussions with the director. Once the actors are cast I’ll have several conversations with them about their character and how the character evolves through the play. Sometimes there might be small and poignant details to include and sometime more practical concerns do to with physical movement. Our choreographer Michaela Mazza has created some beautiful tableau vivants so that has been really interesting to work alongside because as a costume designer I’m always thinking about the composition of people on stage, as though they were a painting.
It became the 1920s remixed with Studio 54
Do you come up with a colour palette for the show or is that decided by the style of the costumes?
I start with the set design in mind as a base colour and then think about what colours to layer in to complement or contrast. Colour has a lot of emotional resonance and so it's a really important part of the storytelling for me. I found some paint colour charts from the 1920s and once you take out the sugary pastel shades you are left with some really interesting greys, purples, teals, greens and yellows. They are like the colours of a bruise which I found quite evocative because most of the characters are quite damaged.
What would you say is your favourite part of the design process?
Sometimes you hit jackpot with the perfect item in a fitting and you see the actors body language shift as they recognise the character in the mirror. It’s hugely satisfying and I think that’s what motivates me. It’s a ker-ching! moment!
Bunty and Florence have some very lavish and ornate costumes and Nicky has a lot of high-end and quite on trend costumes. Which character was the most enjoyable to come up with a design concept for?
I don’t pick favourites! One of the things I love about costume design is the way it allows you to temporarily inhabit other bodies and other experiences. I try to imagine if I was a person, in that moment in time, what would I be choosing? Fashion is such an expressive medium and our characters in The Vortex are constantly trying to amuse or scandalise each other with outrageous antics, including the way they dress.
As a costume designer I’m always thinking about the composition of people on stage, as though they were a painting
How much do the characters dictate the costume and does that change once the actors are cast depending on their approach to those characters?
The costume design process starts in earnest only after the actors are cast, up until that point it’s mostly research in colour, shape and decorative detail. Once you have an actor you have a physical presence to work with and so you are able to start picking colours and shapes. We use the rehearsal period to try different things and it’s a very conversational process where we discover what does and doesn’t work for the character, the actor, the period and the narrative of the play.
Which costume would you most like to wear yourself?
All of them! I would never put an actor in something I wouldn’t wear myself, I have to be absolutely confident about my choices because there’s a relationship of trust there. I’ve enjoyed creating these costumes so much, I hope the audience joys them too.
Fashion is such an expressive medium and our characters in The Vortex are constantly trying to amuse or scandalise each other with outrageous antics, including the way they dress.