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From Muslin to Curtain Call: Theatre Costume Shop Manager Provides a Look Behind the Scenes

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Diane Toyos stands in the costume shop

Before the plays are cast and the students begin to memorize their lines, Diane Toyos and her costume shop team are already hard at work to make the actors look their best. The painstaking detail that Toyos commits to creating costumes for School of Theatre and School of Music performances helps the actors become their characters.

“I keep everything organized by decade and style as well as sizes and colors, because you can’t wear clothes that don’t match the time period of the show and expect them to work,” explained Toyos, manager of the School of Theatre’s costume shop, located in the Academic Activities Building.

Toyos begins her work on each production by meeting with the creative team, including the director, scenic designer, and lighting manager, to discuss their inspiration and brainstorm ideas for wardrobe. For instance, the upcoming “Operatif” featuring Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (Oct. 27–29, 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 30, 2 p.m. in the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center) will be set in the 1950s, with students wearing clothing and undergarments particular to the time period.

“We think of each character and about where they would shop, what types of things they would like to wear, and we decide where to spend money and what we will make in-house,” said Toyos, about the initial wardrobe process. “For example, it will take 40 hours total to make the period dress for the main character in Trouble in Tahiti, while it will take about five hours for each of the other characters.”

After 30 years working in costume shops at Penn State and in Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, and Connecticut, Toyos has the experience to anticipate the return on investments. Taking a Prince-inspired suit from the draping form, she explained that it cost less to buy the materials and make the piece from scratch than it would have cost to purchase it ready-made, especially because it will be used again in the future, for a graduate acting class performance.

Toyos is both budget-conscious and savvy about earning income for the costume shop —she rents costumes to other theatres. In addition, she welcomes donations to the costume shop.

Sometimes people will gift entire wardrobes from deceased family members who loved theatre. Others donate their own clothing that they no longer wear. Toyos acts as a clearinghouse, taking things that could be useful for the shop and finding the proper storage space for it. Evening gowns, bridal dresses, and neckties are just some of the frequently donated items.

Toyos manages a team of graduate and undergraduate drapers, stitchers, first-hands (assistants to the drapers), and craft people, who put together accessories for the costumes. These students typically take classes in the morning taught by various production faculty members, including Toyos, and then spend the afternoon in the costume shop working on projects. Graduate students work as part of their assistantships and undergraduates as a component of their production classes.

“We teach it all!” Toyos stated. “Undergraduates learn basic skills on small sewing machines and then they move up to the industrial machines. They can be a bit intimidating at first, especially because some students have never sewn before, but once they try them, it’s like sewing with butter!”

Flipping through samples of trim in a notebook, Toyos explained the wardrobe process from start to finish. Starting from sketches provided by the designer of the show, the draper creates mock-ups in muslin, a plain, woven cotton fabric that is inexpensive compared to fashion fabrics. After taping, draping, and pinning the lines, the draper creates a brown paper version, which is then revised in a second round of muslin. The draper stays with that costume through the second dress rehearsal, after which it passes into the hands of the first-hand and the stitchers to finish sewing and fitting. Tech week, the week before the preview, is a long week of revisions and alterations. The final product is unveiled on opening night, when the cast appears onstage in their costumes, perfectly fitted and period appropriate.

Asked if she ever had a desire to be the one onstage in costume, Toyos replied, “No way! I got nervous when I had to be onstage for the mother-daughter program at my daughter’s high school.”

Theatre is a family affair in the Toyos home. Her husband, Lino, is a set designer, and her children have all been involved in theatre behind the scenes at their high school. Her daughter, Sarah, is now an art history major in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. Despite her busy schedule, Toyos is taking a vacation in December to work with former graduate student, Camilla Haith (’03 BFA, ’05 MFA Theatre), whose company, THE WALLOPING MOLL, is updating costumes on a cruise ship traveling through Asia.

“I love it! This is what I do,” she said, as a show tune played from the radio in the shop.

For more information on the costume shop, visit the School of Theatre website: