Living History: Inside Dominique Fawn Hill’s Costumes Collage

Dominique Fawn Hill, the costume designer of Studio’s production of White Noise, begins every project with what she calls a “world collage.” Though these first images might spark specific design ideas, Hill is less interested in a literal guide than in trying to capture how the show feels. “That’s how it all starts,” she explains, “because that’s how we get dressed in the morning. How do I feel today? Do I want to do sweatpants? Am I going to a job interview? It goes off of instinct.” Once she has a show’s feeling down, she can then start getting practical (“How many quick changes? What season are we in?”). But even late in the process, those initial images remain a priority—always, as Hill puts it, “the elephant in the room is the world collage.”

Below, Hill talks through how some of the images in her White Noise collage ended up informing her final design. To view Hill’s full world collage for White Noise, click here.

Auction in Atlanta. Vintage Photo.

American South, 1864

When she first meets with a show’s director, Hill usually asks them for a single word or phrase that describes the show. Once White Noise director Reginald L. Douglas offered the idea of “living history,” Hill saw a clear design concept: “Echoes of the Antebellum South and the 1800s embedded into contemporary wear.” But in addition to providing a framework for all four characters’ outfits, the phrase “living history” lines up with Hill’s own understanding of costume design. “Every single second, costumes are never the same thing, because people don’t put on clothes the same day after day. Every time you see a show happen, it’s a different story. It’s living history, every single time.”

"Head in the Clouds" by Seamless.

Head in the Clouds

Early on, Hill seized on shirt collars as one way of bringing the antebellum into the contemporary. “You have the character Leo, who is this rebel, this can’t-really-understand-me artiste that goes against the grain…and he starts off not being colonized—or I liked to say collarized—in how he deems shirt-wear. It can’t be too stuffy around his neck, it has to have a deep cowl, the whole like, boho, hippy-chic.” Without spoiling the show’s plot, Hill notes that “you start to slowly seem him conform to this thing that initially was his idea, but spiritually, he has no idea how it’s morphing into his identity, the collar is getting tighter, the buttons are getting higher.” Furthermore, even as it illuminated a specific costume piece, the clouded face in this image also offered insight into the show’s central men. To Hill, who designed Ralph’s costume as almost an inversion of Leo’s, that unseen face represents how Leo and Ralph “are similar because they don’t understand their own identity. They were dancing around the truth. That’s the basis of their friendship.”’

"Dove & Hand" by Mario Kroes.

Dove & Hand

To design Dawn’s costume, Hill called back to “the billowing sleeves of the wives that were on the plantations—they had their hands prim and proper, and they had the silhouette of a dove. But they were menacing underneath. They had all these light hues and these sensual fabrics—so what does it mean to put on a front with clothing?” This antebellum “front” is then reflected in the flowing sleeves of Dawn’s contemporary work blouses.

"Do You Love What You Feel?" by Jaleel Campbell.

Do You Love What You Feel?

Here, Hill found herself fascinated by what was missing in Leo and Misha’s respective interracial relationships. “There was a codependency but there wasn’t an understanding. There was comprehension but there wasn’t a sense of empathy—because how could you know? I started to look at, what does Black love look like for each of those individuals, and would that have helped them? Would Leo have made the decision he did if he was with a woman of color?” This was Hill’s way into Leo’s psyche, gaining a deep understanding that she finds is a necessary part of costume design.

“It helps me give them some type of autonomy. And that is what I learned in graduate school: even if you have a character in the script that you absolutely hate, you still need to find a way to give them some type of grace.” On first read, Hill found many of the characters’ trajectories difficult to take. “I was like, ‘Leo, what are you doing?’ However, I still had to find a way with him and Ralph to give them grace enough to design their story.”

Though few of the pictures in the world collage will have any tangible presence onstage, these unseen images are part of what makes Hill’s designs so special. After all that dramaturgical design work, “you look in the mirror, the actor looks in the mirror, you both look at each other, and you’re both like—I understand. They’re getting their character, and they’re finally getting why you made the decision that you made: because it makes sense of where they’re going.”

—Francesca Sabel