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December 16, 2017
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Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette. Source: flicks.co.nz.

During her childhood days at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) in Toronto, Rosemarie Umetsu was known more for running around and telling performers what they should be wearing to their concerts, than for her piano skills. Life works in mysterious ways, and her professional career has developed along a similar path. But Umetsu would never have guessed she'd be asking herself the question, "What would Marie Antoinette wear if she was a hipster bride?" for a recent design project.

Marie Antoinette Rosemarie Umetsu
Marie Antoinette in Versailles.
Source: wikimedia.com.

Classical music played a key role in Umetsu's life, having completed studies in piano performance at Trinity College of Music (UK) and at the RCM - but so did design and fashion. Umetsu's grandmother was a couturier, and after her music education, Umetsu went on to complete an Interior Design program at the International Academy of Fashion Design and Merchandising. After graduation, she joined Canada's prestigious retailer Holt Renfrew as a women's contemporary fashion buyer; an experience she credits as being crucial to her present-day success.

After Holt Renfrew, Umetsu worked for Club Monaco prior to starting her own fashion design consulting firm in 2000. Four years later Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu was born, and she's since carved out a strong following of creatives - including singers Chantal Kreviazuk and Sarah Slean, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and classical vocalists Colin Ainsworth and Measha Brueggergosman, to name just a few.

Enveloped in Toronto's theatre and performance communities, Umetsu was approached by critically-acclaimed indie opera company, Against The Grain Theatre, to design a gown for its most recent production, Figaro's Wedding, a modern spin on Mozart's classic (and highly entertaining) The Marriage of Figaro. But this isn't just a gown; this is a wedding gown, for a modern day hipster wedding, no less.

In Figaro's Wedding, Susanna and Figaro - a couple destined to be together - run into a few setbacks the day before the wedding, including an uncomfortably flirtatious Best Man, a newly discovered girl-on-girl-crush, low funds (weddings are expensive!), and a jealousy trap. In the play, the wedding dress is almost a character of its own with a crucial role - one that is cleverly used to trick and catch a cheating husband. 

the similarity I find between Susanna and Marie Antoinette, is that they both not only destroyed traditional social order, but they both had a penchant for stirring the pot, so to speak, through 'dress-up'.

Against The Grain is known for presenting opera in unexpected and modern ways. Refreshing classic operas without losing the integrity of the original is Artistic Director Joel Ivany's forte, and Figaro's Wedding is no exception. Staged as a real hipster wedding in the trendy The Burroughs Building, located in Toronto's hip Queen West area, the audience was fully immersed in the opera's humour and drama.

Designing the dress, Umetsu had to honour the production's blend of tradition and modernity and so, keeping this "hipster" motif in mind, she went to work: "Along with listening to the 1971 Colin Davis recording with Mirella Freni singing [the character of] Susanna, I couldn't help but be somewhat influenced by the book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber, a book I read just last year, upon visiting Versailles for the first time."

Marie Antoinette - the coquettish Dauphine of France who liked to play dress-up for hours on end - served as a muse during Umetsu's design process. As Umetsu began to design the dress, the more she thought about the character of Susanna and the more she realised her strong similarities to Antoinette: "I find Mozart's treatment of women in Figaro somewhat reflective of the early stages of the French Revolution 1780s, destined to upset the social order. And Figaro's women are liberated by obliterating their social rank. That being said, the similarity I find between Susanna and Marie Antoinette, is that they both not only destroyed traditional social order, but they both had a penchant for stirring the pot, so to speak, through 'dress-up.'"

Umetsu explained this to me with much enthusiasm, and wide-eyed, she continued: "Marie Antoinette loved to dress-up, dancing anonymously at masked balls, even dressing herself and her ladies as milkmaids in simple muslin dresses at Le Petit Trianon. For Marie Antoinette, pretending to not be royal was as [author] Weber describes, 'another transgressive and exhilarating costume.'"

Marie Antoinette Rosemarie Umetsu

Susanna's wedding dress designed by
couturier, Rosemarie Umetsu.
Photograph by Alina Kulesh.

And then, Umetsu started thinking, "What would Marie Antoinette wear if she was a hipster bride?"

The result is a voluminous, strapless gown made with a lustery, peau de soie lime fabric with white lace overlay and a generous tulle underlay. "I instantly decided to go with fresh green, as a nod to much of the pastoral imagery found in The Marriage of Figaro and the lime avenues of Versailles, of course!" explains Umetsu.

Not to mention, she wanted to ensure that there was "a sense of fun and wit to the gown, in keeping with the spirit of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaboration." The lime green gives the gown a soft glow - refreshingly peaking out behind the white lace - while the lace itself quiets the lime's loudness, adding a vintage touch. Of course, the lime and yellow are also present in the venue decorations, the bridesmaid dresses, and the groom's handkerchief.

Umetsu had to create the gown as a two-piece, so that the skirt of the gown could be easily removed and worn by another character, Rosina - the Maid of Honour who disguises herself as Susanna to catch her cheating husband in the act. Rosina and Susanna's change of dress causes a similar conundrum that Marie Antoinette often endeavored in her dressing up and cunning disguises. The dress is the key element of Rosina's and Susanna's clever (and desperate) plan, empowering the women to take matters into their own hands and serve justice once and for all.

Through much research, pulling at inspiration and a bit of humour, Umetsu stepped into the world of theatrical costume design - where garments are characters who are able to empower, deceive, and conceal.

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