Sad Theatre News: Jean Engstrom

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s resident costume designer, Jean Engstrom, died on Thursday, February 7, 2013.  This message appeared on Civic’s Facebook page the next day:

Civic will open THE FOX ON THE FAIRWAY this evening with a heavy heart.  Our dear friend and Resident Costume Designer Jean Engstrom passed away yesterday.  As Bob Sorbera reported to the staff, “In a fashion becoming of a theatrical she passed away at the precise moment that the steel magnolias of the costume shop were raising their glasses in her honor.”  Our condolences to Jean’s family and friends.

I offer them my condolences, too.  I don’t think I ever met Jean in person, but I felt as if I knew her, or at least a part of her, through her beautiful costume designs.  I always looked forward to seeing them and invariably they wowed me.

Here are just a few examples (for most of these, if you click the link you can see a photo or two of Jean’s costumes in the full review):

From my review of “Aida” on Indiana Auditions:

Each of the costumes designed by Jean Engstrom is a work of art in itself. Even the “simple” costumes, such as the handmaidens’ turquoise nail-filing outfits, show wit and careful attention to detail in their individualized high heels and sparkly earrings.

From my review of “Thoroughly Modern Minnie” –

I gave up jotting down notes about the costumes that I loved because there were so many of them. Designer Jean Engstrom created and/or gathered a wealth of 1920s fringed, beaded, feathered, and sequined gowns and hats that are just the cat’s meow.

From my review of “Enchanted April” –

Jean Engstrom’s costume design includes several gorgeous 1920s gowns, a fun bathing outfit, and the unexpected pleasure (for me, anyway) of a man’s damp towel. That form-fitting “costume” made me sit up and say, “Hey!” but also left just enough to the imagination.

From my review of “Twentieth Century” –

The 1930s costume design is by Jean Engstrom. I especially loved the fur stoles of the women. 

From my review of “Evita”:

And the gowns! Eva Peron came from poverty, so when she made it big in the Argentine “big apple” – Buenos Aires – she apparently gorged herself on gorgeous clothes and jewelry. Jean Engstrom’s numerous costume designs and Debbie Williams’ numerous hair and make-up designs are glamorous.

From my review of “The Elephant Man

Jean Engstrom’s period costume designs are lovely, especially the ladies’ richly-bustled skirts and the men’s cutaway coats. The clown-like outfits of the “Coneheads” side show act are somehow simultaneously charming and creepy.

From my review of “The Belle of Amhurst

Emily tells us that as an adult she always wore white. She does, in fact, wear only a long, white cotton dress for the whole show. However, Jean Engstrom’s costume design includes several appropriate accessories as well: a white apron, a softly colorful shawl, a funeral bonnet, and a long black cape, for example. Carrie smoothly and subtly employs these as props to aid in her telling of Emily’s life story. They add yet another layer of texture and movement to the piece.

That is what a good costume designer does for any show, actually: she (or he) adds yet another layer of texture, movement, information, and meaning to the piece.  She has to have a good imagination and a wealth of creativity.  Jean Engstrom had both.

I think a good costumer at a large theatre like Civic has to have not only top-notch design and “building” (i.e., making) skills but also excellent people skills.  Almost every Civic program lists several volunteer costume assistants and interns.  There is often a separate hair and makeup designer, too, not to mention the director and the rest of the professional design team.  A good costumer has to get along well with all of those people. 

Also, of course, there are the actors themselves.  At Civic they are all volunteers but, like at any theatre, they want to look good and they have to be able to move and maybe even dance in their costumes in order to do their jobs.  They may be sensitive about their measurements; a good costumer has to work diplomatically around that, too.

Jean Engstrom’s obituary in The Columbus Dispatch says that her career included several years in New York City, where she freelanced as a costume designer and fashion stylist and worked with Patrick Demarchelier, Wes Anderson, Betsy Johnson, and Emmy and Bill Irwin.  It says she also designed costumes for several independent films, and more. 

All of this tells me she was good not only at the creative side of a costumer’s job but at the “getting along with people” side, too.

When I Googled “Jean Engstrom” to find her obituary, I also found a lovely interview that Whitney Smith did with her in 2008 for the Indianapolis Star’s “Metromix”, soon after Jean first started working for the Civic Theatre.  In that conversation Jean mentions that a good costume designer needs to be able to draw (which makes sense, of course, but I had forgotten about that) and needs to be able to find the costumes that she’s not going to design herself.  In other words, she needs to have good hunting and shopping skills.

In the interview with Whitney, Jean also says that a good costume designer has to have “a sense of story, a sense of history.”  I love that Jean said that.  Ultimately, maybe that is why I always loved her costume designs.  In any case, I am grateful that I got to see so many examples of her costume “storytelling” for Civic.

I pray for the repose of Jean Engstrom’s soul, and I wish peace and comfort to her family and friends.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – The obituary says that “Jean will be remembered in a memorial service on the 8th of June (noon), at the home of James Van Winkle, 25420 Lunda Rd., West Mansfield, OH, 43358. Memorial contributions may be made to: Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre 3 Center Green, Suite 200 Carmel, IN, 46032.”

©2013 Hope Baugh

2 thoughts on “Sad Theatre News: Jean Engstrom”

  1. This is really a sweet thing you did, Hope. She was a lovely person and brilliant costume designer, loved by all!

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