Costume as a Way of Thinking – Interview with Professor Sofia Pantouvaki

Tempest (2015), Music Centre Helsinki; Lead costume designer: Sofia Pantouvaki, Associate costume designers: Susanna Suurla, Heli Salomaa, Lauren Sever, Mimosa Norja

Sofia Pantuovaki photo by Frank A. Unger

As 2022 has just begun, one of our first interviews this year introduces a scenographer and Professor of Costume Design at Aalto University, Finland: the wonderful Sofia Pantouvaki. Apart from discussing her impressive and extensive career with more than 90 designs for theatre, film, opera, and dance productions in Europe, we are also going to talk about Performance Costume: New Perspectives and Methods, a remarkable book about costume design and research that she curated and edited together with Peter McNeil. If you are looking for a great source material about costume research, we recommend you check out this book that was published in 2021 and brought together more than 30 researchers and practitioners from the various fields of costume design.

Csilla: First of all, Sofia, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview! I gave a brief introduction about you to our readers, but can you introduce yourself, by telling us how you got started with costume design and your research? How did you get into all this?

Sofia: Oh my God, let me think. Well, to start with, I couldn’t study set and costume design in Greece at the time (after graduating from high school), so I tried to search for a field of study that would be closest to my interests. And that’s why I picked interior architecture with a minor in textiles. This minor was more like textile design and part of it were the basics of textile printing, textile dyeing, and so on.

Csilla: So, you created your own program there?

Sofia: In a way, yes. With the architecture projects for my interior design studies, many times I used some text as my reference or even a theatrical play as my inspiration. I remember as a student I had a course which was called ‘Colour in Space’ which was about materials and colors for interior spaces; for this, I used again a theater play.

CsIlla: And then how did your career continue?

Sofia: After my bachelor studies and based on my portfolio, I applied for an internship in scenography, and then eventually I got accepted to do a postgraduate course, which was a practical one on the realization of scenography and costume at La Scala, the opera house in Milan. I spent two years there and it was a dream place for me. I saw the value of my knowledge of materials and design/composition, and some of my knowledge on fabrics was very useful there. And I loved music from a very young age. I studied music and a bit of singing, so hands-on learning at La Scala was kind of putting together all my interests.

Csilla: You have also designed for quite a few opera and dance productions.

Sofia: Music makes me feel at home. In the sense that I feel I belong there. I feel I understand musical narratives, even if the narrative is very abstract; it’s more expressive than storytelling in a linear traditional way. I still feel that music is very much an area that I love. I like to relax, sit back, and focus on the quality of the sounds of the instruments or the voice. Of course, I have designed a lot of other performing arts genres. I have designed more theater than opera, for example. But I prefer opera and musical theatre. I enjoy it very thoroughly, and I also bring the music into my daily life when I work with music. So, I listen to the musical score many, many times when I work on a musical piece. I listen to it at home, in the car or in the streets with headphones.

I take the musical dramaturgy with me a lot and I get immersed into it in many ways, whereas I don’t feel I can do the same with a text.

For me, it requires a certain type of intellectual setting to go back into the text and to read words. Whereas music for me is a more sensorial experience and thus I take it in my life. I live with it for a few weeks during the design and then, of course, I also enjoy the rehearsals very much.

A glimpse into Sofia’s extensive work

Csilla: You had quite an international career, starting from Greece, then studying in Italy.

Sofia: I have been very international in many steps of my life both in education as well as my practice. I have been in many countries; the fact that I had to go out of my own country to study what I was interested in was the first step for me. It made me take an active stance towards going for my interests. So going out of Greece, first for an Erasmus exchange in Finland, then for the postgraduate course in Italy, and then for a masters in London was also quite a self-created international program. It was about moving to all these places to get more connected to my personal interests.

Csilla: What are the main interests in your practice and your research?

Sofia: I have always designed both sets and costumes since the beginning. But I have had a special interest in fabrics, when dyeing textiles since very early on my interest was in materiality. In the different qualities of the fabrics and especially in the coloring. I think a second reason that is very important for me and made me turn towards researching costume deeper was my interest in people and in interpersonal relations. This regarded collaboration, how I was working with my directors and choreographers, but also with actors and dancers, the performers, as well as with my makers. So, there were these three levels of personal collaboration that I had as a designer. This was more intense in the case of costume because – besides your artistic team and your makers – you also have the actor involved from early on. In the case of the sets, of course, the actor is present but practically comes in later in the collaboration.

So, this may be reflected a lot in how these three types of human agents contribute to my work and this was a very strong impulse for me to start researching.

The fact that a lot of levels of psychology somehow informed the work, including my own way of being has been important for me – in addition to searching the human identity and what kind of persons or characters I want to create. This has been very stimulating for me to go deeper into costume. And this is how I focused on costume research, while also looking at character as a compositional element.

Csilla: These are all fascinating topics that we can read about also in your new book. So how did Performance Costume: New Perspectives and Methods come together? There are so many collaborators, just to name a few out of the 30 collaborators: Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Donatella Barbieri, Christina M. Johnson, Chrisi Karvonides- Dushenko, Aoife Monks.

Sofia: The book puts together the discussions with the people that I have met over the four-year research project ‘Costume Methodologies: Building Methodological Tools for Research in the Field of Costume Design’, which was funded by the Academy of Finland between 2014-2018.

When I say discussions, I don’t mean only just sitting down and chatting. I mean also having joint seminars, lectures, organizing symposia, as well as organizing the Critical Costume 2015 Conference, and altogether developing the Critical Costume network as an international platform with Rachel Hann from the UK. Among the events that I organized in the frame of this project, Critical Costume was the one organized in Helsinki and many people related to costume visited us.

Following, I was able to move around in some short or longer research visits around Europe, the United States, and Australia. I found some like-minded people and people who contributed with their own viewpoints to costume research. So, I was interested in putting together these different perspectives towards costume.

The book became an international endeavor because these people were from all around the world and not just located in different places, but approaching costume from different disciplines.

The volume includes authors who come from humanities, especially history, anthropology, curation, museum studies, and object studies. Some of them come from theater design or costume design for film or television, and then others come from dance making or bring the perspective of the costume makers or the costume supervisor. I tried to bring together all these different viewpoints that reveal the different positions that people have towards costume and therefore bring a certain understanding of costume to the discussion on a scholarly level in the book. Moreover, as we say in the introduction, the book is also representative of different communities around costume. The longest-running one is the Costume Design Sub-commission of OISTAT (a global network of theatre-makers celebrating design & technology in live performance) which is a nowadays well-established community for over 25 years; many members of that group are authors included in the book. I must admit that there are still certain aspects that are not represented in the book, so there is more to do: such as the technological aspect on the latest developments in the area of costume and technology; the ecological thinking; and material thinking – now we have more about phenomenological and bodily thinking in the book, but I think that next would also be to focus on material thinking and new materialism.

Csilla: As you previously mentioned the further research that is required, what are your main interests among these topics? What research are you working on currently?

Sofia: I am interested in costume materialities, in the plural because I think that the material possibilities today could bring a very strong renewal of costume. As a way to think, a way to express, and another way to interpret, represent; so there are many dimensions in what costume can do from this perspective. So, the wider umbrella that I call ‘materialities of costume’ has really many sub-themes. Out of the sub-themes that interest me one is the digital technologies. I’m interested in the connections and overlapping and mingling of physical materials with digital materials. So, wearable technology and mixed technologies is one area that interests me in costume research. I’m also interested in nature and bio-based materials, ways to make sustainable costume in the future, and changing the practices we use. How can we reduce the footprint of costume design and making as part of an ecological sensitization of the wider industry of performance making and filmmaking?

I think this umbrella theme of ‘materialities’ covers these big areas and in all of them, I am really interested in the conceptual development of costume. That’s why I’ve been now focusing on developing the idea of ‘costume thinking’, costume as a way of thinking. I find it as a concept that stimulates me to reconsider who we are, how we live, how we connect with other people, and help people relate to other living beings and the environment. Costume can be a tool for critical thinking, which is what I have been trying to articulate in the past five years and since last year even more.

Csilla: In the book, you also have the educational aspect of costume, which plays a big role in your life as well, as a professor of costume design at Aalto University. Being an educator for more than two decades now must have shaped your view about costume and its role in education. Can you share a bit about that in connection to the chapter you wrote in the book, Exploring Rossini’s Berta: Young Audiences and the Agency of Opera Costume?

Sofia: Yes, this chapter is about the educational and societal aspect of costume. Perhaps, apart from ‘materialities’, this is another area that I am passionate about, as it relates to exploring interpersonal relations. It is exciting how costume can make you develop your thinking from a pedagogical perspective. I have worked a lot with children. My Ph.D. was also on children’s theatre and scenography/costume as part of it.

I also developed a lot on a personal level through theatre. I have watched theatre and opera since a very young age and it has fascinated me. It has given me a free space to be.

So, I see there’s value in designing costume for young audiences, especially when performance is not language-based. Again, we go back to music. It’s a way to work with children of many different languages and ethnic backgrounds.

My research showed that by introducing a ‘costume-thinking’ process that involved analysis, interpretation, design and implementation, the children were invited to actively participate in the creation of an operatic character [Berta, from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville] which boosted their artistic expression, activated cultural exchange and enhanced their social integration.

Performance Costume: New Perspectives and Methods p. 495

One thing I haven’t done yet, but would like to, is to work with refugee children. I think that costume could be a tool to create activities for them, both pedagogical activities as well as artistic and expressive activities.

The book also includes a societal aspect of costume from the adult viewpoint, exploring how costume is part of life. There is a chapter on how costume can become a tool for protest. In general, costume has a strong communicative power which often can be used as a political tool. I think there is a very strong overlap there between fashion studies and costume studies, both of which can contribute viewpoints on the performativity of dressing in everyday life.

Csilla: In connection to education, there is a wonderful chapter in the book edited by Christina Lindgren, “The Costume Designer’s ‘Golden List’ of Competence”. What would you say for the aspiring costume design students?

Sofia: I think the list that we published is quite comprehensive. It was initiated by the author, Christina Lindgren, and it was further developed, discussed, debated in the Costume Design Sub-commission of OISTAT. I believe that, because costume is so connected to human existence, it really touches many different areas. It’s not only about making garments. It’s very much about people. That’s why I go back to the basic concept of thinking. I think it is an impulse for intellectual development and inquiry, so perhaps this is what I would add to the list.

I would make more visible that costume makes you engage with many different dimensions of human history and existence.

Also, with questions relating to the future and to human connection. Costume design is about place, time, histories, psychology, sociology, politics, economics, as well as interpreting, understanding, exchanging, developing. With costume, the designer expresses through material or the immaterial as well.

Csilla: Congratulations again for making this amazing book possible!

Sofia: I’m very proud of this book. I think it’s clear that we didn’t have that many books discussing costume in a critical way. Although some of the perspectives in the book are more traditional, based on history or cultural studies or museum studies, still, there is a very strong focus on costume and its practice. It is not anymore filtered through wider discourse. The content immediately goes to the core of costume. The book also includes critical perspectives about the connections between body and costume, for example, or costume and the collaborators around it, or costume and society. I think it brings topics that we, when we work in the field, are aware of, but it also helps to make those visible. I hope it will become a useful source for younger researchers and students, but also for mature researchers, costume designers and others interested in costume.

Csilla: A bit about your practice, we talked so much about your current research, do you have any design projects that you are currently working on?

Sofia: The last year has been tricky. I had a few projects planned for 2021 that got cancelled. So, we must wait and see what happens next. I try to keep contact with the practice, at least on a smaller scale because it’s a big challenge to balance the scholarly work and the university commitments with my own practice, but I have continuously had ongoing projects. My last premiere was in March 2020. The show opened and the next day it was shut down because of Covid. I try to design one project per year; because of the workload I cannot take more, but I balance myself with the practice. It’s impossible to only be an academic because I was never only an academic.

Csilla: Yes, I feel that, too, that the academic research and design itself can become very interconnected.

Sofia: Indeed, very connected for me. I never found the two as separate things. I find myself reflecting theoretically about what’s happening while I working on a project.

The research inquiry and the research spirit have been part of my practice, and then my practice was what turned me into a researcher.

So, they are very integral and interconnected. For now, I’d like to take a bit of time for writing, to be honest. I might prefer to focus for another year on some intellectual expression and writing, it’s a good chance perhaps.

Csilla: Thank you so much again Sofia, for taking the time for this interview!

Performance Costume: New Perspectives and Methods

Purchasable through Bloomsbury’s website and Amazon. You can get the book in paperback, hardback, or eBook edition (pdf, mobi, epub).

If you would like to know more about Sofia’s work and current projects, visit her website at:


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