He's the man behind the seams

From running the Guthrie costume shop to fitting Katharine Hepburn on Broadway, Jack Edwards maintained high standards and a colorful persona. The Goldstein Museum looks back on a career clearly cut on the bias.

Jack Edwards usually looks like a mischievous Santa, with his twinkling eyes, ruddy complexion and white beard. But as he sits in a small chair in the middle of the Goldstein Museum gallery, he looks more like a king -- a king of costumes, surrounded by mannequins clad in his creations. In the gallery's magical half-light, you can almost imagine them reaching out their perfectly tailored sleeves to pay homage.

Edwards, who ran the Guthrie Theater's costume shop in the 1970s and '80s, is being honored with an exhibit of dozens of costumes and illustrations celebrating his more than 50 years as a designer.

There's Miss Havisham's gray, extremely distressed wedding gown. There's a mauve, starch-collared suit from "The Importance of Being Earnest." And right up front is a screaming-red feather boa so huge it requires its own infrastructure, made for pop pianist Lorie Line.

Looking across the costumes spanning centuries of fashion eras, he said, "there aren't many rules anymore when it comes to formal clothing. It used to be you could tell the time of day by the length of a lady's glove."

Even if you never set foot in a theater during Edwards' prime, you've probably seen his work. After 18 years at the Guthrie, he went on to create fanciful costumes for the eighth-floor holiday shows at Dayton's (then Marshall Field's, then Macy's) and designed the first five Holidazzle parades. He designed stage clothing for Prince's 1993 "Ulysses" tour, and more than 200 dresses and suits for Line and her orchestra. Earlier, he worked in New York on Broadway plays, including the Tony-winning "Applause" and "Coco," the life of Coco Chanel, starring Katharine Hepburn.

Edwards represents a dying breed of behind-the-scenes theater artist, the kind of obsessive perfectionist few arts organizations can afford anymore. While he oversaw costumes at "The G," as he calls it, everything was built from scratch, earning the shop a national reputation that some critics put on a par with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

A formerly large man with equally large appetites, Edwards played as hard as he worked. Proudly gay when most gays and lesbians were still in the closet, he was known for throwing wild, creative parties and attracting interesting friends, like famed New York Times street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. Now 77, he has recovered from lapsing into a coma last year following complications from diabetes and other health issues, but has slowed down considerably. He uses a cane now, and has traded in his signature flowing robes for more standard attire. But he still dresses in all white or all black, accessorized by gigantic jewelry. His face still lights up as he recalls a career as colorful as his imagination.

Edwards believes that a costume isn't successful unless it's telling a story of its own, to define the character for the actor.

"My greatest compliment was always when someone would look in the mirror and say, 'Aaah, now I know how to play this role,'" he said. "That's my job."

Insisted on decent wages

Edwards, who grew up in Pennsylvania, began his career in New York, detoured to Hollywood and wound up between the two in Minneapolis for what was intended as a temporary stay. Offered a permanent job running the Guthrie costume shop, he insisted on better wages for the craftspeople working there.

"There are people all over the world who take advantage of crasftsmen and I won't have it," he said. "I said I would only come back if they gave them an hourly wage."

While Edwards will be the first to tell you he has a healthy ego, he always tried to channel it into the quality of his work. Former Guthrie director Liviu Ciulei once told him that he couldn't detect a personal "stamp" on the costumes he designed. Edwards took that as high praise.

"That meant I'd succeeded in making them not about me, but about that particular play," he said. "It wasn't the Jack Edwards show."

Another trademark was the care he took in fabric choice -- often taking buying trips to New York -- and construction.

"I only use real fabrics because they do what they're supposed to do," he said. "Artificial fabrics may look as good, but costume is all about movement."

Lyle Jackson, a partner in the Minneapolis costume house Tulle & Dye who worked with Edwards on several holiday shows, called his attention to detail "relentless. He had amazing ideas, and like a lot of designers who can't bring them to fruition himself, his other great talent was surrounding himself with the best craftspeople. He's definitely beloved, and definitely difficult, and underneath all the bravado he's kind of a big marshmallow," Jackson said.

Edwards had a side career as a couturier to local well-heeled women. Ruth Bachman, matriarch of the Bachman's garden center family, calls him "a genius at accentuating people's best parts and covering up the not so good ones."

Bachman commissioned a mother-of-the-bride ensemble from Edwards that posed a particular challenge: She was battling cancer, and had her left hand amputated two months before her daughter's wedding. Edwards created a purple beaded-silk gown with sleeves that minimized attention to the missing hand, and a matching turban to cover hair lost to chemotherapy.

"He made such a beautiful dress, I felt beautiful that day," she said.

Dishing on stars

He's also a born raconteur, able to dish on every celebrity encounter at the drop of a name:

On Prince, for whose 1993 "Ulysses" tour Edwards made costumes: "Everyone was deathly afraid of him. I couldn't fit him; he didn't like to be touched, so we had to use a custom-made form of his body."

On Katharine Hepburn: "She could be a real pill. I made her something in lavender and she said she couldn't wear it because the color lavender itched. And those trousers she always wore -- I always thought she had on Spencer Tracy's underwear underneath."

On working for celebrity designer Bob Mackie in Hollywood: "I was bringing a huge armful of flowers to the office for Bobby's mother, and when I got there, Bette Davis was standing there smiling, thinking they were for her. I swept right past her and gave them to the secretary. Then I went downstairs and there was Marlene Dietrich in her bra and underwear. I had to sit down on the floor right then. That was just too much woman for me in the space of 10 minutes."

Edwards has been close with Bill Cunningham, the subject of the popular documentary "Bill Cunningham New York," for more than 30 years. His photo collection includes many private shots taken by Cunningham, some with notes or whole letters scrawled on the back and signed, "Love, Bill." On one he wrote of a recent visit from Edwards, "you pull away the cobwebs so we see life as fresh and exciting."

Edwards recently moved back to his home in Orono, after a stay in St. Paul where his recovery was easier. Despite being for the most part retired, he does have a new project -- designing his own line of outsize jewelry, heavy-metal rings that travel up past the second knuckle, filigreed necklaces that could double as workout weights. What's next?

"I've got the ideas, if you've got the checkbook," he said.

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  • CHARACTER IN COSTUME: A JACK EDWARDS RETROSPECTIVE

    What: A free exhibit of the work of the former Guthrie Theater and Dayton's holiday show costume designer.

    Where: Goldstein Museum of Design, 1985 Buford Av., No. 364, St. Paul.

    When: Through May 20.

    More info: 612-624-7434; goldsteinmuseum.org.

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