One by one the “factory girls” filed into the costume room where Josephine Siu, better known as “Jo Jo,” was busy working her magic.
She’d hand them a dress, a skirt, an apron — whatever she had ready. As she pinned bodices and hems to make the clothing fit, she explained what else was coming.
“I’ll be getting you shoes,” she told 16-year-old Michele Fromel from Dallas.
“I’ll have a bonnet for you as well,” she told 16-year-old Mary Simmonds of Darestown, Md.
“A lot of the girls will have to learn how to lace a corset,” Liu added. “They’ll do it for each other.”
The old-fashioned outfits will help the young women re-create an atmosphere of 19th-century France when audiences attend the Performing Arts Institute of Wyoming Seminary’s production of “Les Miserables,” set for Wednesday and Thursday at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre.
For Siu, they’re just a handful of the many costumes — more than 200 separate pieces in all — that she’s preparing for a wardrobe-heavy show.
“Every one of the main characters has at least three costume changes,” she said, “and people who have smaller roles have more than one part.”
So, the “factory girls” will have practical, sturdy clothing for their factory scene, during which they torment poor Fantine. Then most of them will change into something more along the lines of shabby-chic, old-style evening-wear for the big prostitute scene.
“Do you have to raise your arms during that song?” Siu asked one of the girls, gauging whether the sleeves had to be altered.
Most of the outfits DO have to be altered, Siu said.
“There was one girl who came in earlier and everything fit perfectly,” she said, noting that’s a rarity.
Siu is tasked with getting scores of costumes ready for the show, which is a challenge because of the musical’s setting.
For last year’s Performing Arts Institute production of “West Side Story,” she said, it was possible to just go shopping and find modern clothing that looked appropriate for 1950s New York.
It’s not that easy to find historically accurate clothes that represent early-19th-century France, though some have been borrowed from the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and other troupes.
So Siu sews away, by hand and with a machine, creating rough clothes for factory workers and fine clothes for the aristocratic scenes, such as Cosette’s wedding to Marius.
“This is Cosette’s dress,” she said, pointing to a partially made gown of pink and white satin.
The costumes help tell the story, Siu said, explaining how protagonist Jean Valjean’s clothing goes from dark to light as he works his way from convict to generous benefactor. Meanwhile, the clothing of his nemesis, Javert, becomes progressively darker and darker, culminating with his suicide.
Siu, who lives in King of Prussia, once wanted to become a concert pianist. Then she discovered her flair for design and considered fashion design before deciding theatrical costumes were more fun.
“I like doing historical research,” she said. “And I enjoy collaborating with other artists.”