Linda Baker's freshman daughter came home from Oakton High School upset one day. The theater-arts director Skip Bromley had told his students that several of the volunteer parents that had been working on the costumes would not be doing so anymore since their children had graduated and moved on to other things.
Baker had done some costuming in high school and college and offered her services when she met Bromley at back-to-school night.
That was 10 years ago, and Baker is still the primary costumer for the school's spring musicals. Her youngest child graduated from Oakton three years ago.
"I believe that a member of the community has to give to the community in order to get something back from the community," Baker said. "This is my gift to the community, although I get a whole lot more out of it than I give."
OVER THE YEARS, Baker has been so productive, no one is quite sure how many costumes the theater-arts program has. Recently, when the fire marshal inspected the prop room and said there were too many fire hazards, it took the students a week to reorganize everything.
"Right now, we have 300 costumes on loan," said junior Sarah Stanton. "'Guys and Dolls' [beginning May 16] has about 150 costumes."
Baker said an average show requires about 150 costumes, and she tries to recycle what she can from previous performances. On occasion, a show requires a little more effort. The school's production of "Camelot" had 185 costumes, with the characters of King Arthur and Guinevere having 10 each.
She is a self-proclaimed "stickler" for authenticity and typically ends up making the costumes from scratch. She estimates about 90 percent of the costumes are original works.
"I'm not going to make a white button-down shirt when I can get one for 99 cents at a second-hand shop," Baker said. "But for 'Guys and Dolls,' for example, I had to make two suits because I couldn't find what I needed."
THE GROWING NUMBER of costumes did force the department to weed out some things that were thought to be no longer of any use, and that proved not to be a good idea.
"A couple of years ago, we went through and pitched stuff and soon found out we pitched stuff we shouldn't have," said junior Martha Williams.
Baker said she usually gets an advance copy of the script for the next year's spring production while the current show is under way. She spends a few months designing the costumes and the rest of the time bringing the designs to life. She devotes anywhere from five to 15 hours per week to the costumes.
"I try to balance things out. I do have a family," Baker said.
When she is not sewing, Baker is a nurse for the Hospice of Northern Virginia and calls the work she does for Oakton her “sanity.”
"Am I a costumer who happens to be a nurse or a nurse who happens to be a costumer?" Baker said. "I think I'm a nurse who happens to be a costumer. I get a lot of satisfaction from what I do.
“I could sit at a sewing machine for 40 hours a week and go crazy if it was my job. But I'm content to sit at a sewing machine for 40 hours a week as my hobby."
WILLIAMS, STANTON, junior Kate Sullivan and senior Amanda Snow have the task of keeping track of all the costumes and other props.
"The costumes are categorized by show, but we basically know them by memory," Stanton said.
The girls do not create any of the costumes themselves and limit their experience with needle and thread to minor repair work. Even so, they are intimately familiar with most of the costumes.
"Of course we try them on," Stanton said.
"It's every little girl's dream to have a huge closet," said Sullivan.
They are also, in their words, "fiercely protective" of their room. They have created a "long, detailed" sign-out sheet, and no one is allowed to touch the costumes but them.
They are also responsible for keeping track of what costumes are on loan and making sure they come back. The school frequently lends the costumes to other schools, community groups and local theater companies.
The rest of the theater-arts department also gets to play dress-up on occasion. The boys don dresses at back-to-school night and sell season tickets for the department's upcoming productions, and students find Halloween parade costumes in the prop room.
"It's one of the world's biggest dress-up boxes," said Snow.