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Posted 17.07.19

Costume maker Jessie Nelson heads to the Edinburgh Fringe

By Phillip Buchan

Jessie Nelson with her Snow White and the Huntsman-inspired costume

Costume maker Jessie Nelson, who is preparing to graduate from our BA (Hons) Costume Production & Associated Crafts and was awarded the Golden Button award for Outstanding Technical Ability at the Degree Shows, is on her way to the Edinburgh Fringe for a mixture of freelance stage dressing and volunteering across the festival.

Marie Dunaway, costume subject leader at Plymouth College of Art, said: “Jessie is such a passionate person, with a diligent work ethic that will be an asset to everybody she collaborates with. From the moment she joined us, Jessie tried to learn every skill and technique that was available, taking up a part-time job in Theatre Royal Plymouth alongside her studies and keeping a cool head under pressure.

“Throughout her degree, Jessie never stopped researching about fabrics, historical methods or techniques, mentoring younger students on the skills that she picked up. She was engaged with her learning at every stage and absorbed everything the college has to offer. Jessie will be an asset to whatever industry she chooses to go into, with experience that will give her a headstart on any performance.”

Jessie Nelson's Edwardian evening gown.

Testing both her design and making skills, for the college Degree Shows Jessie set herself the challenge of creating a new shape and structure for the evil queen from the film Snow White and the Huntsman. Inspired by Colleen Atwood’s golden cloak design for Queen Ravenna, Jessie combined modern fabrics with historical construction methods to create the costume.

Jessie also created an Edwardian 1909/10 evening gown based on designs originally worn by Lady Maud Warrender, featured in the Janet Arnold Collection. The gown features thousands of hand-sewn sequins on the first three layers of net, over a satin layer featuring a boned-bodice and hand-sewn shoulder chiffon pieces.

Collectively these two pieces show Jessie’s innovative interpretations of existing designs as well as meticulous craftsmanship and historical research. We caught up with Jessie before she leaves for the Fringe Festival to find out more about her incredible journey so far:

What inspired you to study costume with us?

I’ve always been interested in sewing. I grew up in Chippenham, Wiltshire, but chose to travel to study at Plymouth College of Art because I was so impressed by the college’s facilities and open-door policies between different departments. I looked at other universities where the costume department felt isolated from the rest of the institution, but here I worked alongside illustrators, filmmakers, photographers and fashion students.

How did those open door policies help you grow as a costume-maker?

There were no restrictions on the skills that I could learn, so I visited the metal workshops when I was working on my evil queen costume, interpreted from designs for the 2012 Snow White and the Huntsman movie. They taught me spot-welding and gave me the skills to create a lot of metalwork that’s hidden in the structure of that costume.

Likewise, I went to woodwork and was taught how to use the tools there for a historical costume that I was working on. There’s a real value to now being able to use power drills and handsaws to put my own wooden frames together, rather than relying on other people to do that for me. These are skills that will be helpful to me in theatre or film, building and maintaining sets.

Costume by Jessie Nelson - Photo by BA (Hons) Commercial Photography student Lorna Crockett

Were there many opportunities to get out of the studio?

Yes, we also worked on live theatre productions, taking us outside of our comfort zones. In some ways, that’s been the story of my time at Plymouth College of Art. Each experience taught me unexpected new skills, preparing me in different ways. In my second year we collaborated with The Actor’s Wheel and Plymouth Marjon University on a touring production of Julius Caesar, making bespoke props and costumes, then dressing the actors and maintaining the wardrobe backstage during the live shows.

The experience of Julius Caesar and particularly working with the actors was incredibly confidence-building. It helped me to see how much I want to do more work on touring productions in the future.

What’s next for you as you prepare to graduate?

Tomorrow, I’m heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe, first for a week of freelance work dressing stages and hanging drapes, then after that I’ll be staying as a volunteer stage crew, making sets and helping out with just about any aspect of the productions that I can. I can’t wait! There’ll be opportunities to learn so much, including new areas like lighting and sound, broadening my skills while I network and seek out opportunities to meet and work with all manner of small and large performance companies. This is an incredibly exciting time in my career, filled with possibilities.