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On the History of Costume Design and its Training in Finland

Teksti: Joanna Weckman, TaT

The history of costume design in Finland is shorter than in Central Europe for example but longer than as one is generally accustomed to think. The early stages of costume design as a trade and line of work were long thought to have taken place in the 1960s. However, the history of stage costumes and costume design in Finland is closely linked with the birth of Finnish theatre and with the development in the field of theatre as of the 19th century already. This being said, it was common practice well into the next century for the theatre manager to be responsible for the overall aesthetics of a given production in cooperation with the director and the set decorator. They were provided important assistance, however, by the head of costume department who could work quite independently once s/he had gained work experience and the trust of the management. S/he knew the wardrobe, assisted in choosing costumes, and could design all of the costumes if needed.

Some artists and keen theatre lovers known from the 19th century and from the beginning of the 20th designed costumes for theatre and opera productions often in parallel with their other occupations. Fashion salons also created stage and film costumes but most of these were for individual actors and often for main players. There were, however, professional costume designers working in Finland as of the 1920s already. In case of need, they were called on mostly to help at the biggest theatres and motion picture companies in Helsinki when a separate costume designer was thought to be necessary for the work at hand. Historical plays, operettas, and ballets were examples.

Among the earliest professional costume designers known are Martha Neiglick-Platonoff (1889–1964), who designed costumes for over 50 operettas, plays, and ballets mostly at the Swedish Theatre and at the Finnish Opera in 1926–58, Regina Backberg (1898–1979), who worked as a stage costume designer in the 1930s and 1940s, and Bure Litonius (1919–72), who started his massive career as a costume expert in films and period plays in 1938. From 1946 on, Litonius designed, in cooperation with his wife Anita Litonius (1924–2008), costumes for over 60 stage productions and films. After the big motion picture companies ceased their activities, the Litoniuses worked for television in the 1960s.

Apart from professional costume designers, illustrious representatives of arts and crafts too would work at theatres as visiting costume designers especially from the 1950s on. The design work of heads of costume departments, set decorators, and visiting designers consisted mainly in creating period and fantasy costumes paid for by the theatre while performers would be in charge of the costumes and accessories needed for plays set in contemporary times.

Costume designers and dressmakers were rarely mentioned in film credits

Finnish ideas on stage costumes were, for a long time and until well into the 20th century, founded on conventions that often stemmed from Central European models and changed very slowly. These included costuming traditions of well-known character types or plays and, on the other hand, “type” costume design which, based on stereotypes related to e.g. the age, gender, social class, profession, skin colour, nationality, and religion of a character, attempted to convey them with a set of repeated distinctive features. The “type” roles such as those of a leading man or of the young and innocent ingénue available for actors carried repeated expectations as far as appearance and costumes were concerned. Many of these types found their places in the character gallery of Finnish cinema too.

Costume designers and dressmakers were rarely mentioned in film credits. From the early 1930s to the early 1960s, however, the big motion picture companies did have their own wardrobe departments where costumes were designed and made. Clothes needed for films were also created on order by the fashion houses of the Greater Helsinki area and acquired second-hand. When the big film companies had to shut down in the 1960s their wardrobes were sold to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. After work ceased at the old motion picture studios, a number of professionals in the field also switched to designing and making costumes for television.

Recycling costumes from production to production for extended periods of time was a long-standing habit. Furthermore, the same costumes used in the same plays from decade to decade were worn from one generation of performers to the next. A costume could thus pass between interpreters of a given role over a period that could span even decades. Costumes were recycled and repaired and materials were re-used not only as a result of the tradition-bound thinking about costuming but also because of the financial situation of theatres and film companies and of the more general ideals of saving and repairing clothes and clothing which became more manifest especially in times of war and shortage. Costumes were also rented out, loaned out, and sold between theatres, motion picture companies and, later on, television companies.

For the overall vision as transmitted to the spectator, the relationship between costumes and sets has been an essential one. In the late-19th century and early-20th century thinking about stage costume design, two approaches can be seen which alternated in favour and were also interwoven at times: realism and stylization. Their relationship to lavishness and simplicity shaped the visual outcome. At times, an extremely lavish realism topped with meticulous details is what has been aimed at in sets and costumes. At times, both have been stylized – either in their minimalism devoid of anything decorative or in their great wealth of details. At times, interestingness has been found in combining realism and stylization when the sets have been stylized and reduced while a detailed sort of realism has been pursued in the costumes for example. The Finnish film costume design has mainly aimed at as realistic an expression as possible.

The change seen in the 1960s in Finnish thinking about stage costume aesthetics was part of a wider international period of transition and not only linked with changes in the field of theatre. Moreover, it did not mark the birth of costume design as a profession in Finland and of Finnish thinking about costumes as the prevailing thought was in the following decades. The change in costume aesthetics was intrinsically linked with the directors’ approaches in particular. The kind of thought that emphasized a stylized artistic overall solution made itself felt in the increased importance of separate visual elements including costumes. The post-war modernism in theatre aesthetics and the ideals of simplicity and practicality in 1950s arts and crafts had already re-shaped earlier thinking about stage costumes and about the earlier ways of making them in connection with the ideals of a given period. In stage costumes, this was seen as a stylized simplicity that became stronger in the next decade. In the 1960s, the form language of stage costumes drew from the arts and crafts and from contemporary fashion which admired simplicity and shied away from decorativeness. The stiffer and denser textile materials used instead of the softly hanging thin ones previously in use resulted in sculptural and minimalistically stylized costumes. It was especially when the 1960s turned into the 1970s that work made by hand and the Eastern-European trend with an emphasis on treatment of materials gained momentum and became the most prominent part of costume aesthetics in 1970s Finland. The changes in overall theatre aesthetics were also seen in actors dressing and undressing onstage, which set new requirements especially for making period costumes. The approach, a more realistic one than before, that was aimed at in foreign films and television series resulted in fresh-looking period costuming based on studies in clothing and dressing. This in part inspired Finnish costume designers and makers to look for ways to create period stage costumes in a similar way that combined a realistic approach to research with a stylized artistic overall view.

An anachronistic period costume design could incorporate clothes from several eras

The next phase of change in overall theatre aesthetics at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s re-shaped stage costume aesthetics yet again. The ideals held dear by the previous generation were once more called into question. Post-modern profusion, associative mixing, and emphasis on corporality became the overall objectives in stage costume aesthetics as well. An anachronistic period costume design could incorporate clothes from several eras. The changed field of theatre with its small group theatres gave birth to a new culture of making in which costume designs were “built” by combining flea-market finds with the actors’ own clothes. On the other hand, the evolution of the textile industry brought a wealth of new materials within the theatres’ reach that were eagerly experimented upon. Experiments with and treatment of materials were particularly interesting ways for many costume designers to approach a performer’s costume. Lavishness, kitsch, and playful experiments with materials have indeed shaped costume thinking since the 1980s. There has been no going back to a unified train of thought since the splintering of visual sign language. Nowadays, reduced or abundant stylization and a mix of different eras are more prevalent than pursuing a realistic “period” wardrobe in stage productions set in a given moment in history. In practice, many different approaches still live in parallel and blend into each other in case of need. The most visible costume-related phenomena, i.e. those that have attained the most publicity, do not represent all of the design work that has taken place in this profession. They do, however, provide an insight both in their time and later on, when the history of this field is being considered, as to what kind of costume design has been aimed at or found to be of interest at various times.

Even though the practice of the trade of the costume designer started in Finland in the beginning of the 20th century already, it was in the 1960s during a period of transition in overall theatre aesthetics that the profession gained a new kind of visibility and the number and degree of organization of people in the field began to increase.

A membership in the Union of Finnish Stage Designers was a natural choice not only for set designers but also for the pioneering costume designers like Neiglick-Platonoff, Blackberg, and Litonius who had started their careers in the 1920s and 1930s. The number of young costume designers slowly began to increase in the union as well when the 1960s turned into the 1970s. For costume designers, the 1970s and the early 1980s in particular were a period of professional organization. This was when the first collective agreements in the field were negotiated, international relationships were created, education was sought abroad, and national education activities were set up.

Due to the lack of a training programme available in Finland, students in costume design headed abroad

Course-based educational activities and related lectures had been organized by individuals and by various theatre organizations since the late 1940s already. The pioneers of education in this field included Regina Backberg, who also gave lectures on stage costume design in connection with the costume design education that she had set up in course form in the 1940s, and Ritva Karpio, who taught “costume studies” at the Theatre Academy and gave lectures on stage costumes in various connections from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Due to the lack of a training programme available in Finland, costume design students headed abroad. Czechoslovakia was a particular favourite. The Bratislava University of Performing Arts had no less than eight Finnish costume design students between 1970 and 1984. Finnish costume designers went studying in e.g. Italy, Soviet Union, and United States too and took shorter complementary courses in the Nordic countries.

From the late 1960s on, the costume designers who were active in the trade union strove to make a difference not only in terms of employment and wages but also in the educational possibilities available in Finland. From the 1970s on, the quantity of complementary education for costume designers and costume makers increased. Active teachers included Liisi Tandefelt and Maija Pekkanen in particular.

Complementary education was aimed at costume designers who were already working actively but, as of the end of the 1970s, other possibilities for education in Finland also improved: in 1979, a non-compulsory third-year course in costume design was launched at the Department of Fashion Design of the University of Arts and Design Helsinki. It was taught until 1997 by Maija Pekkanen, a costume designer of the Helsinki City Theatre. A two-year pilot project for the MA degree of Costume Designer was set up at the University of Arts and Design Helsinki in 2000–02, and the first high-quality training programme for professional costume designers aiming at a Master’s degree in our country was launched in 2003.

Literature and Picture Materials

Weckman, Joanna 2009. Puku ja tutkimus. In: Gröndahl, Paavolainen & Thuring (ed.) Näkyvää ja näkymätöntä. Näyttämö & Tutkimus 3. Teatterintutkimuksen seura. 172–199.

Weckman, Joanna 2015. Kun jonkun asian tekee, se pitää tehdä täydellisesti – Liisi Tandefelt pukusuunnittelijana 1958–1992.Väitöskirja. Aalto-yliopiston Taiteiden ja suunnittelun korkeakoulu, Muotoilun osasto. Aalto ARTS Books.

Weckman, Joanna 2015. Unelmien kuteita – epookkipukujen historiaa Suomessa. Teatterimuseon julkaisusarja.