Interview with Dawna Oak
Senior Director of Costumes and Costume Designer @ Feld Entertainment

Dawna is responsible for the day to day management of the Costume Department as a whole encompassing the costume shop, show support, administration and design. She is in charge of costume design oversight for all properties within the company including Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Marvel Universe Live!, Disney On Ice, Disney Live, Feld Motorsports including Nuclear Cowboys and Monster Jam from inception to completion. Her own designing projects as assigned including RBBB Gold Unit 4-7, Nuclear Cowboyz 1-5, numerous re-designs of Disney on Ice and most recently Co-Designer of the 145th Edition of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Check out Feld Entertainment Feld Entertainment.
Hi, Dawna! How did you first get involved in costume design?
I first got into costume design, actually, in junior high school, when I was in a play and we all had to make our own costumes. And that kind of carried over into high school, where no matter what you were doing in the play, you had to be a part of a crew. And I always chose costumes because my mom taught me to sew when I was little. I started when I was about five: I was making Barbie clothes and designing prom dresses, and doing anything I could just to make things unique and be different. So I think that's probably where I started. And then moving on to college, again, you had to be in a crew even if you were in the show, so it just sort of carried over. And while I was a performer, I was always working on costume crews, and working with a friend of mine who was doing costumes, and that carried over into doing costumes in theater. And again, making clothes, working retail for ten years off and on, from 1980 to 1990, just being really involved with clothes and costumes, and anything that had to do with something to wear. So I think that's probably where it started, and it just grew from there and it turned into a full-time career.
What is the most exciting part about designing for the circus? What accommodations do you have you keep in mind designing costumes for ice and circus performers?
I think one of the most exciting things about designing costumes for the circus was always the people: everybody's unique, everybody is a family. Everybody trains for many years to do the things that they do in the circus - from trapeze, to training animals, to riding elephants, to dancing - everybody comes with a special skill set, and then they're also asked to do other things within the show. So whether they're on the floor, in front of the audience, or behind the scenes working as a manager, or doing wardrobe, or working as a floor crew - the people, really, are the most unique thing and there's nothing like it. And if you've ever been able to work in that environment, and work in the arts, you know that there's a family that comes from it, and they're people that you will know your whole life. People couple up within that environment, so it really does become a family. The thing you have to keep most important in your brain is the function of what everybody's doing. No matter how great the costumes look, no matter how beautiful they are, if they can't function, if they can't do the act they were hired to do - then they can't work, and if they can't work, then you've failed. So keeping in mind their athleticism, the function of their act, what they have to do when they're wearing that costume, is really what's most important. So you have to think about the kinds of fabrics that you use, and the kinds of embellishments that you use, and things that don't get hung up if they have a particular need within their act - that matters. And sometimes pants have to be really narrow, or shoes have to be really specific, and the soles of the shoes - shoes are always a big challenge in the circus and on anything that you do for costumes. But it's all really exciting and interesting, and the challenges are what makes it that much more fun.
What are some common misconceptions about the costume design industry?
Some of the most common misconceptions about the costume design industry is that it's glamorous. You see the finished product, you see the opening night, you see the performance on the floor - it's a lot of work. I tell anybody who asks me about that, "You should be prepared to work for a long time, for not very much money. If you don't love this: if you don't love working long hours, working late into the night, if you don't love doing things yourself, you should not be in this business, let alone doing costumes." It's a lot of work, and people who come right out of school think, "Oh great, I have my costume design degree now, I'm gonna go be a costume designer." Maybe - in community theater, maybe on a college production, maybe you're gonna help somebody who's doing an independent film, throw something together. You should expect to work for free, or for very little. You should expect to have multiple jobs that support you and put a roof over your head. You better love this. You better be passionate about it, and just like acting - because I was an actor before I was a costume designer. And I discovered that as much as I wanted to do that, I wasn't willing to give up every reasonable thing to do it - I wasn't nearly as good an actor as I am a costume designer and a costume administrator. But I was passionate about it, and I knew I had to be in the entertainment industry. And when I found costumes, that's what kept me up late at night and working late into the into the wee hours, and willingly so, and going home and taking a shower and coming back and doing it again. You have to love it - and if you don't love it, you shouldn't do it.
How do you balance a managerial role with crafting your own designs?
I balance my heavy load as a manager, a director - a senior director - of this department and my creativity. Fortunately, I have a great job that allows me to do that. I know it's unique, I know I'm lucky, I've worked really hard to be at this place where everything melds together really great. I really enjoy the administrative part of my job. I enjoy managing budgets, and money, and people, and projects, and multitasking - but I also get to pick and choose some of the more creative things that I'm involved with, and get to have a lot to say over the things that are larger projects, that I am an oversight person for. I get to use my expertise - thirty-five-plus years of experience doing costumes - to guide and direct projects, not only in the costume department, but as well in other production areas. I have a lot of expertise in the fields: ice skating and circus arts and live entertainment and theater, that my experience is valuable. So I'm able to balance it all and juggle it all, and I'm really lucky. If you are more interested in doing things that are on a managerial level, there's lots of jobs that you can do. You can be a wardrobe supervisor, for film in particular that is very, very important: to do spreadsheets and keep track of things, and do continuity, and make sure that your reps are set up and things like that - that you need really good strong managerial skills, in addition to loving costumes and clothes and that whole thing. It just depends on what you want to do in the field, and there's a place for you if you want to work hard.
What suggestions do you have for someone who wants to become a costume designer?
First: be willing to be a costume assistant, a shoe painter, a wig fluffer, a trim sewer-onner, an apprentice, an assistant, a coffee getter. You really, really - if you want to be good at this - you need to start at the bottom, no matter your college degree, no matter your masters, no matter your student debt, your student loan debt. You need to work. You need to get your foot in the door somewhere, where you are willing and able to do anything that's asked of you, you're not prejudging, you're not deciding something's beneath you. The best experience you can get is from the bottom up, and if you work your way up from the bottom, you will have done all the jobs that you need to do in order to be a really good costume designer. My favorite costume designers are the people who did that: who started at the bottom; who did things themselves; who did whatever was asked. And some of them are the most gracious, wonderful human beings, and they're people that you would recognize (if I said their name) and they are lovely, and polite, and considerate, and generous, and giving, and most importantly - the hardest workers in the room. You have to be willing to work really hard, for a really long time. If you love it, then great! If you don't love this, if you're not willing to sacrifice everything, you shouldn't do it. There's lots of jobs out there, there's lots of things to do in entertainment - but costumes is, can be, a really thankless department sometimes, and you have to really love it. But the best thing about it is you make amazing friendships, and build relationships with people that you will have for years and years and years. I work with people today that I've known over 20 years, probably 20 - no, 20 plus - and we were in different roles at the time when we met and now we're in different roles here. But the people are the best part of what you'll find doing this job.