One minute she is dyeing an old wedding dress blue for “The Secret Garden,” the next, she is sifting through boxes of lace to find the perfect collar for an outfit in the upcoming production “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Now, she is fixing a botched hem while her computer waits with her costume research in front of her. She is constantly surrounded by thread, fabric, needles, irons and people. It may sound like madness, but somehow Ellen Iroff makes it work. Iroff, the costume shop manager and a professor at the College, is in charge of every single aspect of clothing within the theater department – whether she is making it, finding it in the countless closets of clothing, or buying it new.
Iroff’s costume shop is laid-back and enjoyable, alive with the buzz of student chatter and sewing machines. She has created a safe haven for theater students and other majors alike. It is a place where work does not really feel like work— it feels like fun.
“It’s fun, it’s open,” senior Anna Todisco said. “You don’t really have to be embarrassed about anything. If you don’t understand something, if you do something wrong, you just have to be honest.”
Mistakes come with the territory, since Iroff’s students are often sewing beginners. Her shop has a team of costume shop assistants, including Todisco, theater kids and total newbies. Iroff recognizes these differences and sees the bigger picture.
“All the small [sewing] mistakes that you can see in the costume shop, where I look at it and I know that, you know what, that line’s not really straight,” Iroff said. “But somebody sewed that line, and it’s the first thing they’ve sewn and been pleased with themselves about maybe all semester. So they take pride in that. And you know what? When I’m sitting 20 feet away, it doesn’t matter. You can’t see that.”
The costume shop manager has been sewing since she was in diapers. It all started with her grandpa, who owned a clothing factory. It was not long before Iroff ditched the dolls and moved on to real muses, beginning by creating her own dance costumes and then working for her high school’s musical. The College of Charleston graduate reflects on her time here as the years that led her to costume design.
“I didn’t realize that sewing was a career choice,” Iroff said. “I loved the sewing and creating and playing with characters. I was really into reading and playing dress up and make believe as a kid and now I get to play dress up, but with real actors who get to move around.”
Iroff previously worked for the Spoleto Festival and designed costumes for Broadway stars at Flatrock Playhouse. And she passes her expertise to her students with a smile. Her experience is evident as she weaves her way through a crowd, fixing a pinning job here, rethreading a machine there – and all the while keeping a smile on her face.
“She just really cares for it and she really wants to share her knowledge about it and wants other people to be as excited about it as she is,” junior theater major Leala Grindstaff said.
A lifetime with a needle and thread has given the teacher the knowledge to take on so many newcomers, shows and work all at once. But juggling the tasks comes easy for Iroff, whose passion for her job and for theater keep her motivated.
“I love theater so much that I love watching other people fall in love with it,” Iroff said. “I just really love doing theater and teaching theater and teaching people to love theater.”
Iroff recognizes the uniqueness of her career path, where she rarely does the same task for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Iroff regards herself as a child in that way, jumping from machine to computer to student at a moment’s notice. The multiple switches between theater shows per semester makes her job anything but boring.
“There aren’t many professions where you can have someone walk in and say ‘Okay, take your clothes off and put this on,’” Iroff said. “There’s something very intimate about sewing with people every day and fitting people every day.”
The daily costuming with students gives Iroff a unique professor-student relationship, where students feel completely comfortable to speak their minds in her presence.
“I feel like I get to do some really fun, interesting bonding with the students and getting to know their lives and what they think about things,” Iroff said. “Our modern thoughts really reflect back on plays. The great plays are the ones that resonate with so many different generations.”
Such plays are more than just excellent performances; the clothes on the actor’s backs are crucial to the success of show. Iroff explained that the best costume design is such that the audience does not notice the clothing because it seems natural, it seems like the clothing the characters should be wearing. She also stressed the specificity of her work, as each costume must reflect both the character and the moment.
“Costume design is not about lots of people—it’s this one specific person at this one specific moment in [his or her] life,” Iroff said. “So, like, what does this woman say when she’s professing her love to this man? What does this woman wear when she is sobbing in her bed? Those kind of really specific moments…this one costume exists for this one person in this one time.”
Iroff understands the vulnerability of a moment and the importance of the clothing worn during such vulnerability. She teaches this to aspiring costume designers, as she works to make their sketched dreams a reality while staying within the budget. The collaboration between the costume shop manager and the designers is crucial, as it is Iroff’s job to make the ideas presented to her into reality.
Managing all the clothes, people, fabric and wardrobe for performances may seem like a lot, but one look at Iroff soothes all stressing: the costume shop is, and will continue to be, in good and passionate hands.
Post interview, Iroff returns to collaborating with student designer Todisco in the lab. She is back to the students, the fabrics, the patterns and the happiness. She is back to what she loves.
*This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Yard.