Dress for Success: Costume designer Suzanne Young clothes actors for local, national, and international theater productions
It was 1981 when Suzanne Young, 21, moved to Boston from her native England.
“It was a bit of a culture shock,” she recalls. “Police came to the costume rental shop for Santa costumes. I wasn’t used to seeing people with guns on their hips or to hearing people tell me how much they loved my accent.”
She’s gotten used to this side of the pond, settling with her husband, Larry, in Dixboro, a village just outside Ann Arbor, and became a go-to costume designer for area theaters including the University of Michigan, Purple Rose, Wild Swan, Performance Network, and more.
The Youngs found their way here circuitously, with time spent in Europe and different states. But wherever they went, Suzanne created opportunities to work—from opening a school to teach English to French children to developing a wedding gown company.
As a child growing up in Wincanton in Southwest England, Young was interested in art, both drawing and costume design. “My mother used to teach ballet, [so] I would often design costumes for her ballet school productions,” she recalls.
When she was 11, her mother became involved with a group that mounted Shakespeare plays in a lakeside setting, and she was cast as Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But designing and coordinating costumes for The Merchant of Venice in 1974 for that Shakespeare group excited her most. “It put me on the path to a career in costume design,” she says.
In college, Young took an art foundation course, which exposed her to a variety of fine arts—painting, sculpture, and graphic design among them. Then, at the Wimbledon School of Art & Design, she focused on costume design and construction.
When she started assisting some of her professors, Young felt she was learning more on the job than at school, and soon she was off on her own path. “They would be working on movies, TV, ballet, or vaudeville-type shows or plays. I worked for Derek West, who was based in downtown London,” she says, adding that he constructed a lot of the costumes for BBC’s Hamlet in the early 1980s. She helped make costumes for a baroque opera at the English Bach Festival and toured with the festival to Greece, Holland, and France.
“I carried on working and learning and found that having a degree isn’t that important,” Young says. It wasn’t necessary, for instance, when the University of Michigan invited Young to design for University Productions.
Suzanne and Larry met on a sailboat while she was working for West. Larry was working for General Electric at a U.S. Air Force base. He found a job in Boston in 1981 after they married.
“I was never the sort of person to sit still,” says Young, who worked at a costume rental shop after she moved to the U.S. There, she met someone who was dressing performers at the Opera Company of Boston (OCB). “They discovered I knew how to make costumes, and I became a stitcher. I ended up running the wardrobe there until we left five years later in 1985.”
During her time in Boston, Young and a friend started their own costume design and construction business, working mostly on operas.
She recalls a 1983 production of Puccini's Turandot at the OCB. “The costumes were made in China. They were brought over with people who showed us how everything was supposed to be worn.”
Later, Young went with the show to the Kansas City Opera, which had rented the production; this time, she showed the dressers and actors how to wear them.
In 1985, the couple relocated again, this time to France, where Young’s first son, Alex, was born. “When we moved to France, we didn’t really know anyone, but there was an expat community of Americans.” She got to know a group of moms with kids her son’s age and reconnected with a friend she hadn’t seen since she was 11. Then, with a new friend, she started a school to teach children English.
In the 1990s, the family returned to the States, settling in Lebanon, Ohio, where Larry grew up and where their second son, Geoff, was born. Young started another business, creating and making wedding gowns, which thrived until they relocated to Ann Arbor in 1994.
She designed costumes for an Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice in 1998. The set designer, Toni Auletti, introduced her to a friend at the Wild Swan children’s theater, and Young’s local career was launched.
“I did many shows for the Wild Swan and met people at the Performance Network through them,” she says. She began to do work in the costume shop at U-M, too.
TJ Williamson, a draper in U-M’s shop, has worked with Young for 18 years, first as a stitcher with University Productions and then on Young’s design projects at local theaters.
“We have reached that level of collaboration that when words fail, we still can communicate ideas with one another,” Williamson says. “Suzanne’s designs always tell the visual story of a character, and performers are always delighted with her work. As a draper, I have always enjoyed making Suzanne’s beautiful renderings into 3D realities.”
It was at the shop that Young met fellow costume designer Christianne Myers. “She asked me to build costumes for shows she was designing at the Purple Rose, and she introduced me to Guy Sanville, the artistic director emeritus of the Purple Rose.
One of the most challenging dresses she worked on for Myers, which she co-built with Lea Morello, was for Sanville’s production of David MacGregor’s Vino Veritas at the Purple Rose. A character dresses as Queen Elizabeth for a costume party, wearing a complex garment that had to be removed quickly onstage to reveal sexy, black undergarments. “I hid the fastening, so nobody knew what was going to happen,” Young recalls. The Purple Rose spent about $5,000 on the dress for materials and labor, not counting the lingerie.
Young believes her background behind the scenes made it possible for her to do that tricky costume. “When you understand the foundations of garment construction, you can change things around to make them work in an unconventional way.
“I’m happy to have been able to experience all aspects of costuming including being a dresser, a stitcher, draper, shop manager, and assistant. It all gives you the background to really understand your craft, and I believe it is essential in the making of a good designer. I was fortunate enough to be taught wig making and millinery as well," she says.
Young's extensive experience in so many aspects of theater makes her an ideal creative partner.
Dana White, a Purple Rose lighting designer, says Young “incorporates all that I look for in a collaborator—[an] understanding of how to use design to tell a story, a great sense of humor and a sense of how we are all working together to accomplish the best production.
"Suzanne is especially good at using not just color, but texture and layers of fabric to create a costume, which is very rewarding for me as a lighting designer because I can highlight all of those textures and fill in the shadows with color, creating a jewel-like quality.”
In addition to the Purple Rose and the defunct Wild Swan and Performance Network, Young's designed for Jessica Fogel’s Ann Arbor Dance Works. Further from home, she has worked for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson and the Pine Mountain Music Festival in the Upper Peninsula as well as in theaters, opera companies, and dance festivals in other states and countries.
She’s been designing for the Tipping Point Theatre (TPT) in Northville almost since it opened 16 years ago and recently did It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, directed by Julia Glander, TPT’s producing artistic director. “Suzanne's attention to detail for this period piece, 1940's radio actors, was perfect, and her costumes were gorgeous—and all within our budget,” Glander says.
Young starts her work by reading a play or opera and then finding out what the director wants to do. “It’s very important that the director’s vision is brought to life,” she says, adding that sometimes a director has no idea of what he or she wants by way of costumes, so she presents ideas. “Sometimes directors know exactly what they want.”
She particularly loves doing plays set in distant times. “Period pieces are more challenging,” Young says. She does extensive research, looking at photos in books and at paintings of the time.
Young decides what fabric would be right for the character at that time and coordinates the color scheme with the set designer. Often, she’s required to rent period costumes because that’s less expensive than working with a construction team to build costumes. At the Purple Rose, Young has been able to create several period shows. “That has been a fantastic dream for me,” she says.
When Young does a play set in modern times, she puts together images from the internet and magazines. Then she shops, occasionally in clothing stores or thrift shops, but mostly online. Since the onset of COVID, more understudies go on, and it’s easy enough to find the same garment in different sizes. She doesn’t make outfits from scratch unless she can’t find what she needs for sale.
“One of the most important things to me is making sure the actors don’t have to worry about their costumes, so they feel comfortable and natural in their clothing,” Young says. “I like to have photos of the actors to see who I am working with because I want to be able to costume them in a way that is appropriate for the characters they are playing but that will also work for the people they are as actors.”
Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.
Audiences here can see Suzanne Young’s designs next in a June 2024 production of Carey Crim's "What Springs Forth" at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.