Ruoxuan Li’s costume design takes the form of dresses in green and pink plaid and elegant velvet coats on the stage of “Cosi Fan Tutte.” She feels she shines whenever she makes actors on stage shine through her costume designs.
“Costume design is not just about making pretty dresses or fancy stuff,” Li said. “It’s also about telling a story through costumes.”
Li, a graduate student in costume design, sketches costumes for productions that the theater, music, dance and film departments put on. Li’s most recent project is “Cosi Fan Tutte,” an opera which Opera UCLA, alongside other UCLA departments, performed this month, with the last show being Sunday.
She said it was one of the most time-consuming, but also rewarding, shows she has been involved in because it required three costume changes for the characters, more than usual in opera.
Li, originally from China, attended the University of the Arts London, where she initially studied fashion design. She gained an interest for costume design halfway through college because she wanted to do more with the clothes she designed. She wanted to make costumes with personality and character that would tell a story, rather than clothes that would be manufactured and sold.
“For fashion design, it’s all about manufacturing and money,” Li said. “For costume design, it’s about a story and how to draw the audience into the story.”
Li said the costume is just as important as the actors who wear them. Costume design often requires not only doing research on the script of the play or production, but also on the character.
“We think about what would be in the characters’ closet,” Li said. “We think about their social status, their location and their stage in the story.”
Whether it’s a cufflink or a pocket, Li said even the small details of costumes help actors get into character.
“Costume designers want to use their skills to make other people shine,” she said. “A show without a backstage can’t happen.”
For “Cosi Fan Tutte,” Li was required to design costumes based on fashion from 1920s England. Most of the costumes were made of red velvet and dresses of silk chiffon to match the time period.
For two of the main characters, who are sisters, Li decided to go with different color schemes and materials to distinguish between their personalities. She used vibrant colors like pink for the flirtatious sister and cool colors like blue for the sister loyal to her husband.
When the production team begins work on an opera, Li said the director tells the team his vision, but often gives costume designers the liberty to create what they see fit.
Li researches the play and the characters before sketching or looking at projects. After, she creates live drawings and a preliminary draft that she presents to the director and team.
After hearing feedback from the rest of the team, she looks at whether she will need to pull clothes from their stock of existing costumes, make them herself or buy them. Then, she makes renderings of the costumes.
“It’s cool to see everything backstage in the works,” Li said. “Anything can happen, but you always say, ‘Today was better.’”
Li said she hopes to continue designing costumes after she graduates at the end of the year. She plans to attend Design Showcase West in Los Angeles, where aspiring designers present their work to companies in hopes of getting a job after they graduate.
Li said one of the most rewarding things about designing costumes is seeing them come to life on the actors in “Cosi Fan Tutte.”
“When you’re designing, you know it’s going to work,” Li said. “But it’s good seeing how they work on stage and watching costumes come alive.”