Woven into History (Video)

Senior Olivia Rutigliano takes Shakespearean costume study into her own hands.

Friday, November 22, 2013

By Blake Cole

(Additional video content is available at the bottom of the page.)

When senior English and cinema studies major Olivia Rutigliano decided to investigate the significance of Shakespearean heroines’ costumes, she figured what better way than to design some?

“I asked, ‘What about the zeitgeist and directorial vision helped create the unique looks Shakespearean heroines maintained over several productions?” says Rutigliano, who crafted the costumes as part of her 2012-2013 Penn Humanities Forum (PHF) research fellowship. “Why does Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in stage productions in Europe in the ‘30s always looks like Glinda the Good Witch, versus why does Lady Macbeth in the late 1880s on the British stage always seems to be wearing armor of some sort?”

Rutigliano, who submatriculated into an English master’s program earlier this year, designed six dresses that were modeled off the aesthetic tendencies she had studied. Her initiation into the craft began when she was a freshman in cinema studies. Her interest in costumes led her to Penn’s Underground Shakespeare Company (USC) where she convinced them to let her create a costume department. She scoured thrift stores for relevant clothing, but found the selection wanting. In order for her to represent the characters according to specific time periods and aesthetic interpretations, she decided to take things into her own hands. She began commuting to New York to take weekend classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she learned to sew on a professional level and eventually created costumes that were used in USC productions. (Watch Olivia discuss her costume design at the bottom of page.)

Rutigliano’s costume design led her to what would become her cinema studies honors thesis: “Silence and Small Talk: Verbal Omission and Visual Belittlement in Silent and Early Talkie Adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew,” which she discussed at this year’s 2013 undergraduate research fair (see video below). In it, she explores how silent film productions of the play represent the character of Katherine—the “shrew.”

“I wanted to take my experiences in crafting costumes and expand them to a literal level,” Rutigliano says. “In Katherine, we have a smart, nonconformist heroine that is eventually lobotomized and made to recite a woman’s duties to her husband. The directors of the silent film tend to equate her physicality as being a strong woman with her being very violent—an animal, if you will. So I write about how, through representations of Katherine in costume and these histrionic acting styles and production design, these visual stylizations make up for what she’s not able to communicate with words." (Watch Olivia discuss her honors thesis at the bottom of the page.)

Rutigliano, who also serves on the PHF steering committee and as undergraduate chairman, returns to the 2013-2014 forum with a whole new take on theatrics. “When I was young, my mom brought home a complete illustrated history of the Oscars. I discovered certain weird trivia moments in Oscar history, including when the awards were stolen from their winners—so I decided to turn it into a research pitch to the forum.”

The cases of the stolen statuettes date back almost a century: Alice Brady’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for In Old Chicago from the 1937 ceremony; Hattie McDaniel’s 1939 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone with the Wind; and Vivien Leigh’s 1951 Oscar, which she won for Streetcar Named Desire. “Hattie McDaniel’s award disappeared at Howard University, most likely in 1968,” says Rutigliano. ”Her estate had donated it to the university and it disappeared during civil rights riots at the school, probably due to outrage that she won her historic award for portraying a servant.”

To research the fate of the missing Oscars, she flew to Los Angeles to do some sleuth work. There, she met with librarians and studied archive files in order to generate a contact list. “I was shocked to find professional filmmakers and studio execs, many of whom I had tracked down myself and cold called, willing to talk to me,” says Rutigliano, who is now in the process of gathering these clues into a presentation. “The Penn Humanities Forum is so wonderful because it allows these kinds of unorthodox projects that wouldn’t necessarily be possible in another format. It’s an unbelievable way for students pursue something they’re interested in, in any way they’re interested in it.”


Olivia discusses costume research and design for her Penn Humanities Forum research fellowship:

Olivia discusses her cinema studies honors thesis: “Silence and Small Talk: Verbal Omission and Visual Belittlement in Silent and Early Talkie Adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew":