Skip to content

From wallpaper clothes to glitter shoes, Red Deer costume designer stretches her creativity

Gwendolyn McCagg works with local theatre groups to bring stories to life on stage
Theatrical costumer Gwendolyn McCagg and various stage garments she designed for Red Deer’s Tree House Youth Theatre. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff)

Gwendolyn McCagg spent the last few months travelling between France in 1730 and swinging ’60s London.

As a costumer for the Prime Stock Theatre’s Games of Love and Chance as well as Central Alberta Theatre’s Beatles-era thriller, An Act of the Imagination, McCagg has been bouncing between different time periods from October through early December.

“This fall’s been especially busy,” said the Red Deer resident, who’s also dressed actors for the contemporary CAT play, Comfort Cottages and Tree House Youth Theatre’s fantasy Christmas Sketch Spectacular.

Being so occupied with local theatrical work after the demise of the Red Deer Polytechnic Theatre program would appear to be good news. But part of McCagg’s work is done on a volunteer basis for companies struggling to line up other technical supports.

“When the college program closed, it has been a huge detriment to the city,” added McCagg, who would leave Red Deer to find work, along with other theatre technicians, if not for a supportive husband and family.

On the positive side, McCagg’s hectic schedule is showing that creativity continues to flourish in Red Deer at the grassroots level.

Her biggest recent challenge was pulling together a half-dozen elaborate 18th-Century style costumes for Games of Love and Chance. McCagg recalled whipping up all the show’s lavish outfits in 15 days (except for the lead character’s dress, which was created by Donna Jopp, former head of wardrobe at RDP).

McCagg laughingly recalled she couldn’t have met this tight deadline without her spouse, David Robidoux, helping out from behind the sewing machine, and their adult child, Vahn, assisting with cutting and stitching.

While she loves the details on historic clothes, McCagg admitted she wouldn’t want to live in them. “As beautiful as those costumes are, there are also very restrictive,” she said, “all of these different layers: Petticoats and underskirts and over-skirts and bustles and corsets, sometimes with wooden boards sewn into them — so no, thank you!”

McCagg used to cut arm holes in hankies to dress her dolls, as a child. She would become so absorbed in lush movie clothing she could barely remember a film’s plot line after leaving the theatre.

The army brat, who lived in France, Germany, Cold Lake and Innisfail, left behind a series of unfulfilling jobs to study theatrical costuming at Red Deer College in 1998.

Although she had to leave the program after the first year to look after her new baby, McCagg later began working as a dresser on Shrek, Alice Through the Looking Glass and other productions at what was then Red Deer College, with Jopp as a mentor.

Gaining this practical experience helped her gradual transition from wardrobe assistant to costume designer. “You learn what works and what doesn’t,” she said — although a degree of experimentation a job requirement.

McCagg, who shops locally for fabric — often in the upholstery department — started costuming for Tree House Youth Theatre 15 years, while Vahn was in the acting program.

She recalled agreeing to help with one show— and soon being offered the paid position of costumer with the company.

McCagg loves the creativity. One of her favourite projects was making costumes for Sweeney Todd Junior. She followed former artistic director Matt Gould’s black-and-white vision by sewing clothing in raw muslin with black serge-ing showing on the outside, like the lines of a drawing.

Wallpaper was used to create costumes for another Tree House show set in the 1700s. “That really opened my eyes to what could be done with costume,” she said.

Using this kind of out-of-the-box thinking, McCagg avoided creating what could be a horrifying large spider costume for the title character of Charlotte’s Web by putting dainty spider on a hat and having the actor dressed in a garment with a web print.

But not every idea works out as planned: One of McCagg’s last-minute brainwaves was spray-painting gold suede shoes needed for a Tree House’s production of Into the Woods.

When the shoes turned out a dull silver, McCagg glued gold glitter all over them — which turned out surprisingly well.

McCagg feels the best thing about working for Tree House is watching young participants transform — often from shy and lonely kids into confident teens with a supportive peer group.

She hopes more young people will become interested in learning more about the technical side of theatre. Tree House and other troupes are looking at establishing some training programs, so McCagg invites anyone interested to get in touch — and help imaginary worlds spring to life.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter