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Costume designer sews up success

MIT costume designer Leslie Cocuzzo-Held sews costumes in her workshop.
MIT costume designer Leslie Cocuzzo-Held sews costumes in her workshop.
Photo / Gabor Csanyi/The Tech

Leslie Cocuzzo-Held figures she's costumed more than 50 shows in her 14 years at MIT. As head of MIT's costume shop, she designs and outfits MIT's Shakespeare Ensemble and Dramashop and oversees the lending and rental of costumes.

A technical instructor on MIT's theater faculty, she team-teaches a stagecraft class, a principles of design class and, every fourth semester, a custom design class.

As Ms. Cocuzzo-Held hurried to finish costumes for this weekend's opening of Dramashop's latest production, School for Scandal, she took time to talk to Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts about costuming this 1777 comedy and her work at MIT.

Heinemann: How did you learn costume design?

Cocuzzo-Held: I've been doing this since I was 17, when family friends who owned a summer stock company in Vermont hired me because they knew I could sew. When you're starting out, you pretty much take whatever you can get, just for the experience. You work really long hours for practically nothing, but you learn an incredible amount.

I went to an art school for fashion design, but didn't like the business part of it. After taking a couple of years off from school to work in theaters, I went back to UMass to get my degree in fine arts and ultimately landed a job with the Round House Theater, a professional resident company in Silver Spring, MD, where I worked for eight years.

Who takes your classes at MIT?

A lot of people take the classes to fulfill their humanities requirement. Students are generally unaware of our operation here until they show up for class. Then, depending on their interest, we hold onto them for dear life because without our students, we couldn't possibly complete our work. There are only two of us here full-time, and for this show for example, we're building about 20 costumes -- a lot of them tailored and constructed to the body line.

Who designs the costumes and decides the look of the show?

I do, with the director and other designers. That's why I liked theater instead of fashion design; it's a community endeavor.

What is unique about the costumes for School for Scandal?

The director, Michael Ouellette, recognized that the kind of gossiping and scandal sheet stuff that goes on today is the same as in the play. He wanted to have an 18th-century silhouette -- with the full skirts and nipped-in waists for the women -- but wanted the content of the costumes to be contemporary.

Because we're mixing the old and new, we took contemporary patterns and made them look period. For example, we put boning in the bodices instead of putting the actors in corsets.

Also, the different worlds -- the gossipy world, the country world and the world of the charming profligate Charles Surface -- are represented in the costumes by three different color palettes. In their own world, characters look like they belong, but when the worlds mix, there's a visual tension.

How do the costumes get made?

First I do the drawings. Then my assistant Diane [Brainerd] and I discuss how we're going to make the costume and what kind of patterns we're going to use. If we're drafting a period costume, we do it out of the book [of period patterns in one-eighth-inch scale] onto muslin, which is an unbleached cotton. Even when we're using contemporary fabrics, we make all the costumes in muslin first. We do the fittings in muslin and take them apart and use the muslin pieces as patterns for the actual costume. If I'm designing the show, I'm present for all the fittings; there's a lot of detail you need to figure out when the actor is actually there in the shop.

Do students help with the construction?

Everyone in the cast has to put in a certain number of hours per week in set shop, costume shop and on lights. Also, if you're taking a class with us, you're required to put in hours in the shop. But Diane and I do most of the work since we're here full-time.

What's your favorite kind of show to do? Modern, hybrid or actual period?

I love doing the research for period pieces. Obviously we don't have the same technology they had and we couldn't afford the fabrics they had. I love that kind of problem-solving. How am I going to make this look like a $1,000 piece of lace when all I have is a piece of muslin and a bucket of paint? For me, the most interesting part of costuming is the illusion -- making something look like something it isn't.

School for Scandal will be performed Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 8-10 and Feb. 15-17 at 8pm in Kresge Little Theater. Directed by Michael Ouellette, the production depicts a world where reputations are assaulted by hypocritical morality. Tickets are $8, or $6 for MIT students and senior citizens. For more information or reservations, call x3-2908, e-mail or see

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2001.

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