Costume designer Hanna Shea Persson fashioned by hand the more 300 butterflies adorning a seven-layered tulle gown. She hand-cut the butterflies from felt, muslin and organza. PHOTO COURTESY HANNA SHEA PERSSON

Designer strives to create revealing costumes

BROOKLIN — Hanna Shea Persson is fashioning a career in costume design for characters in productions from stage to film.

But Persson was her first subject to dress.

Originally from Sarasota, Fla. she recalls running around as a young girl in a sheer, teal, floor-length gown.

“I used to play in it like nobody’s business,” said Persson, who currently is teal-headed. The costume designer described herself as always being a “theater baby. It’s a terrible thing to love to sing, dance and act and be bad at all three,” she said, laughing.

But Persson possessed then and now a love of costumes. From her work in the theater and film world, her creations recently were featured at Brooklin’s Friend Memorial Library, where she gave a talk on the art of costume design. She conceived and designed all the costumes, including a pair of shoes that she made herself. She was in town to visit for a spell with her parents, David and Patty Persson, before immersing herself in another project.

Persson draws inspiration from many sources from the late screen legend Mae West to the Turner Classic Movies channel’s suave host Robert Osborne.

“I grew up wanting to be Robert Osborne,” she said. “My favorite film is ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’”

Before her stay in Brooklin, Persson had worked in New Zealand, teaching at the country’s oldest drama school, Toi Whakaari, where she previously had earned a diploma in costume construction. New Zealand is currently a “hot spot” for filming shows for Amazon and Netflix, the designer said.

She also holds a business of art and design bachelor’s degree with honors from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. It was while pursuing that degree that she ended up doing costumes for a film and discovering her love for that profession.

Costume design is much more than sewing and shopping. Persson does extensive research and writing before planning and creating wardrobes.

“I’m very character-based in my work as opposed to fashion-based,” she said. “I read a script three times and break down when a character is spoken about and when they appear.”

“The psychology of clothing is what I enjoy,” she said. “After I’ve assessed the person and what character they are, I start building,” the world the character inhabits. Persson will research what was happening in art, politics and film during that character’s life. “It all impacts each other. Nothing exists in a void.”

For a 2016 web film series called “Sugar,” directed by Dylan McDermott, Persson created a mermaid costume featuring starfish bra cups. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JENNIFER OSBORN

“It’s not a glamorous job, but I love it,” she said. “I just love dressing up other people.”

Drawing up top 10 lists for the film or play’s time period help a lot. Before creating costumes for a production set in the United States in the 1940s, Persson made lists of the top beverages (hurricane, martini, Manhattan) the top 10 musicians (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Doris Day), the top 10 prominent film directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford) and so on.

“I do sketch, but I also heavily rely on collaging,” she said. “I collage the world even and collage the costumes.”

The costume designer talks with the director about her ideas before getting fully launched to make sure that everyone has a similar vision.

“They often describe costume in the script,” she said.

Persson pays attention to the characters and how they might think, feel and act.

“I try to shop where my character would shop,” she said. If a character is a minimum wage employee somewhere, Persson won’t be buying outfits at Saks Fifth Avenue.

For historical characters, Persson will call local theaters to see what they might have in their wardrobes that she could borrow for a role.

“Thrift stores are my No. 1 best friend,” she said.

She was the costume designer for a 2016 web film series called “Sugar,” which was directed by Dylan McDermott.

The story is about human trafficking. There’s a character named Barry who is a line cook at night and dresses up in drag after work. He needed a mermaid costume. Persson said she wanted the bra that Barry wore to look like he made it himself. So, she fashioned a mold to create starfish bra cups. The mermaid bra was in the Friend exhibit, but you can also see it in a clip on the website of the actor who played Barry, Lucas Alzada.

“I love crafty costumes,” she said. “You’re often making these things with little to no budget, so you have to get crafty.”

Persson’s first film was called “Paradise, Florida.” It was set in Florida and she had to dress eight characters. That meant sweat-stained T shirts, which she had to create by hand using water. “Continuity is an issue,” she said. The characters couldn’t look fresh and dry in one scene and damp and sweaty in another scene.

Details are crucial.

Persson may need to buy new clothing for characters but the wardrobe can’t look new.

“That’s a pet peeve,” she said.

So, for example, she’ll wear out the cuffs on a shirt. Or put a few holes in a T or pill a sweater. “I love the distressing of contemporary clothing. I think the actors notice and it helps them.”

Persson also has dressed characters for the stage.

For one character, Persson was tasked with creating a fairytale-like garb. She designed a gown with layers of tulle adorned with hundreds of butterflies. She made more than 300 butterflies by hand, cutting them out of organza, felt and muslin that she dyed.

“The tutu itself had seven different layers,” Persson said wistfully. The gown stayed behind in New Zealand.

Of course, the more Persson practices her craft, the more she looks back on photos of her earlier work and thinks of all the things she would change.

She also has done commercials but said those jobs are more styling than costume design because she isn’t helping to create a character per se.

“I used to prefer films but now I prefer theater,” she said. “I really liked the ballets. The family aspect of dance and theater is nice. It’s like going to camp for three months.”

While she’s been in Brooklin, Persson shared her knowledge with local schools. She recently helped Deer Isle-Stonington students with costumes for a dance production at the Stonington Opera House. She made and dyed nine shirts out of muslin for them and made feather wristlets.

“You design based on the time and money you’re allotted,” she said.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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