Students design and build costumes for local aquarium

Frances Marion Givhan

Executive Staff

The Theatre 240: Costume Technology class contributed to the Tennessee Aquarium’s annual “Aquascarium” Halloween event by creating the costumes for the divers or “costumed educators.” Professor Dan Backlund suggested to the Aquarium’s marketing staff that the animal characters could have costumes specifically for Halloween, and the costume class ended up taking on that task.

“Last time, we simply did standard Halloween type characters – a witch, vampire, etc. – but this time they asked for first responders,” says Professor Jennifer Matthews, who teaches costume design. She chose the class to create the costumes due to the small size of four students, and she had confidence that they could meet the challenge of patterning clothing for mascot costumes.

“I was honestly confused, thinking about making costumes for costumes,” says Danielle Silfies (C’19), a work-study student in the costume studio and a Theatre major. “There are no patterns that exist for mascots, so we had to drape and draft our own patterns.” According to Matthews, the class – which included Silfies, Alexis Harshbarger (C’17), Taylor Thornton (C’17), and Liz Estes (C’18) – first decided which type of first responder would work best for the three animal educator costumes: Sandy the Shark, Ginny the Gentoo Penguin, and Ally the Alligator. The students then researched uniforms and figured out the best way to draft patterns for each animal’s body type. “Draping and drafting our own patterns was a challenge,” says Silfies, “but I enjoyed learning that I could make them without originally having one.”

Harshbarger worked on Sandy the Shark, who received an army jacket in camouflage. “I’ve never made a jacket,” she says, though she has sewn all her life, “so I actually attached the sleeves to the wrong side of the jacket before fixing it.” Learning costume design techniques by actually creating a costume excited her. “I really enjoyed working on the shark since it was not even close to human shaped.” Matthews believes that one of the biggest challenges involved making human clothing for the existing mascot costumes.

The class planned the costumes down to the most precise detail. “When the deadline was near, we all worked in the shop for hours to finish all the small things that needed to get done,” says Harshbarger. Silfies enjoyed the triumphs of the project, including the detail work like pockets, badges, and buttons. She even made functional pockets for Ally the Alligator, and Sandy the Shark received a patch that said “Seaborne,” a deliberate pun on the Airborne Division in the Army. “My favorite part of the entire process was putting on those last finishing touches,” says Silfies.

The project was both a class assignment to test the skills of the students and an opportunity to see their work in action. “I love the idea of doing something outside of a normal costume for an actor,” says Matthews. “They looked simple, but there was a lot of creative problem solving in the process.”

Through creating these costumes, the students participated in a unique and creative kind of community outreach. “It is also nice for our work to last and be used longer than just the run of a single show,” says Backlund. “In the past, we have taken students to the aquarium and they have seen their work being appreciated by thousands of kids – young and old – during the event.”

Harshbarger’s favorite part of her accomplishment was the community impact.. “While sewing is one of my favorite things to do, knowing that what I create will make someone happy is what I love most of all.”