As an associate professor of theater, costume and scenic design at Bates College, Chris Mc Dowell knows what looks fabulous on stage.
As a collector of period clothes and shoes, she knows what’s fabulous in real life.
And if Mc Dowell sometimes gets to wear some of those pieces — like wooden platform shoes from the 1940s — that’s a perk.
“They feel very Carmen Miranda,” she said.
Mc Dowell has collected more than 200 pairs of vintage shoes and so many pieces of clothing that she lives in a large house to accommodate them all. They’re displayed on shelves in her Bates office, stashed in closets, stored in boxes. Some are from centuries ago, others decades.
It’s the perfect hobby for a theater professor. And not a bad way to spruce up a wardrobe.
Name: Chris Mc Dowell
Age: Somewhere in my 50s
Job: Costume and set designer and professor (of the same) at Bates College
How did you get interested in theater? A good friend in high school wrote a play, and I could sew, so of course I was commandeered to design . . . which at the time I thought was just sewing stuff.
So you act, right? You must love acting? NO! I am a terrible actor, but — like most people I know in theater — acting is how they first suck you in.
What drew you to costumes and scene design? A terror of acting! No, actually I found the ability of shaping the visual world of a play for an audience much more exhilarating than being up on the stage. I also loved the energy of all those things happening literally behind the curtains.
How did you start collecting period clothes and shoes? Partly it was a natural outcome of my life as a designer and that pack-rat impulse of, “Ooh, I can use this on stage some day.” Also, I had an amazing costume history professor in college — Maureen Tripp — who ignited a passion in me for preserving and studying period clothes.
What are the most unusual items you have? I have a pair of shoes from the 1830s that are embroidered with straw. I have shoes from the 1940s with funky carved wooden soles. And a pair of the shiniest 1970s disco platform soles you could ever see. I also have a real Balenciaga cocktail dress from the 1950s. It’s a work of art.
What are your favorites? Well, I love much of my collection for various reasons. I guess because there’s always the chance that I can use something, I tend to be very egalitarian in my love of the clothes and shoes I acquire. However, I do have some amazing bias dresses from the 1930s and an 1890s velvet woman’s cape that I never get tired of seeing.
Where do you get them all? I have become an expert spotter of vintage fabrics and textile patterns when I cruise the racks at thrift stores. I also buy things at Orphan Annie’s (in Auburn), and every place I travel I always have my eyes open for interesting stuff. FYI: Margate, England, has great thrift stores.
Ever wear any of your collection? In my younger, skinnier days, all the time. Now I’ve developed a habit of sewing dresses for myself from original 1950s patterns. I have one favorite pattern and seven versions of the dress in my closet.
Where do you keep them all? I have a ridiculously big house. Designers take up A LOT of space. Between my several-thousand-volume library of design books, a small room just for the vintage clothes and my design studio, I NEED a big house.
How do students react when they spot disco shoes on your office bookshelf? Well, they are a great conversation starter and they help boost the general level of good design energy in my environment.
Best era for shoes? Hmm, I would say 18th century, 1930s, 1940s and whenever Doc Martens were invented.
What play is the most fun for a costume/scene design person? That is virtually an impossible question, just because I have found something to love in every play I’ve designed. However, if I could only design Shakespeare’s plays for the rest of my life, I could still die happy.
OK, is it spelled theater or theatre? End the debate here: It’s –re if you’re posh, but –er otherwise. I won’t say which I prefer.
Chris Mc Dowell
Shoes in Chris Mc Dowell’s office at Bates College.