Posted by: rcieri | November 1, 2008

Jack Smith, Elon’s costume designer: As colorful as the clothes he makes

Costume designer Jack Smith has spent the past few months preparing for Elon's production of Sweeney Todd.

Costume designer Jack Smith has spent the past few months preparing for Elon's production of "Sweeney Todd."

By Rachel Cieri

November 1, 2008

Standing amid a periwinkle and lavender fabric utopia, Jack Smith moves his hands deftly across a vast expanse of black and white taffeta silk that will eventually grace the stage of McCrary Theatre.

Sewing machines whir from the corners of the little room while morning sunlight streams in through the six windows Smith calls the “six reasons it’s a good costume shop,” highlighting the virtual kaleidoscope of color.

For more than six years, the associate professor of performing arts has been designing costumes for Elon’s theater and dance programs and passing on his expertise to students.

When Smith arrived, the program was just beginning. Stuffed in a tiny space in the depths of what is now the Center for the Arts, Smith and his students had one sewing machine and one surger to work with, and no one knew how to sew.

As fate would have it, his first Elon production was “Anything Goes,” a high-glamour 1930s musical that required the alluring clothes of old Hollywood.

“It was rough getting out of the starting blocks,” Smith said.

Since then, the costume shop has come a long way. The miniscule, dark room that housed the original shop is now the laundry room, and the new one has produced the attire for dozens of shows, including three identical costumes for Christine and the Phantom in last spring’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Watch a video tour of the costume shop:

Smith says he did not always know that he wanted to be a costume designer, or a teacher for that matter. As a child, he moved across the country several times because his father was in the Air Force. His family finally settled in rural Illinois, where they owned a farm. Smith grew up thinking that he wanted to be a graphic artist.

At Eastern Illinois University, a graphic design program did not exist. When his adviser suggested that he become a journalism major and an art minor, Smith, like any directionless undergrad, took the advice.

By his sophomore year, he knew that journalism was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“I found myself arguing with my teacher — a full-out argument in the middle of class — about whether it was appropriate to put a glass to the door of a hotel room to hear what was going on inside,” Smith said. “My teacher though it was fine. To me, that was just ethically bereft. She said, ‘You need to find a new career.’”

So he did. Smith took an introduction to theater class that required 30 hours in one of the production shops. Since he was the only one who knew how to sew, he was put in the costume shop. From that day on, he was in love.

“To this day, I remember exactly how it smelled, the music playing on the radio, and I had the weirdest feeling that this is where I belong,” Smith said.

Smith went on to attend graduate school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and he went right into teaching from there. After five years, he realized he needed some professional experience.

“I felt like I was teaching a lie because I’d never worked professionally,” he said.

Smith then spent another five years as a free-lance costume designer working at a Shakespeare festival in Orlando, Fla. He enjoyed his work, but he missed teaching and “impacting generations.” He made a list of what he was looking for in a teaching job, including a costume shop, an established program, a graduate school and a shop foreman. Elon had none of this. Still, he took the job because Elon had the intangible qualities he needed.

“The faculty is so focused on what the student needs, and that was exactly what I wanted,” Smith said.

Smith was the university’s first costume designer, and he developed the program from scratch. He works with each of his students to meet their individual needs and interests, tailoring his teaching and assignments to their personalities.

Senior Elizabeth Easterly is a dance major interested in designing costumes for dance performances, but Elon does not offer that sort of coursework.

“He actually did an independent study for me that was about dance costuming last year, just because I was so interested in the subject and I had nowhere else to turn,” Easterly said.

Junior music theatre major Johnny Stellard is now working with Smith on his fifth musical, “Sweeney Todd.”

“He helps advance the story with his costume designs. It adds a richness to the show, and he’ll tell you about the meanings behind the colors,” Stellard said. “You can come to him with character ideas, and he’s willing to work with you and collaborate. The bottom line is that he cares.”

Jack Smith: “The best advice I ever got”



  1. This is an outstanding example of a professional headline, lead, and storytelling with specific details. In a perfect world, it would have been more ideal if the supporting quotes (from students, friends, etc.) would have been woven in rather than left to the end. An ideal package would begin with Jack and end with Jack. And, finally, the one thing I think most important that is missing is his sketches or perhaps some photos of people wearing the clothes he has designed!

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