Unveiling Shakespeare-Themed Ensembles at the Saint Louis Fashion Fund

What started as the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival in 2001 has transformed into a local movement, expanding into program areas including Shakespeare in the Park, Shakespeare in the Streets, Shakespeare in the Schools and SHAKE 38, a five-day event marathon celebrating Shakespeare’s 38 plays. For the unindoctrinated, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis hosts a free, professional theater production of a Shakespeare play every summer in Forest Park in Shakespeare Glen, where visitors can camp out with folding chairs and wine coolers on the grass. This year, the festival pays homage to its beginnings with “Romeo and Juliet” as the mainstage production, which was also the very first play in 2001.

This year’s SHAKE 38 kickoff event will be a show in partnership with the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, featuring ensembles inspired by three plays in Shakespeare’s canon curated by local stylist Sarah Stallmann. “We wanted to make the work of Shakespeare more accessible to young audiences, and we thought it would be great to have Sarah style the ensembles,” says producer Kristin Rion. “That way we could make them more relevant to the conversations that are happening today around women and gender identities.”

We spoke with Stallmann to discuss her creative inspiration for the show. In her words, “prepare for the unexpected.”

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How did you approach the task of developing ensembles inspired by Shakespeare’s canon? Sounds like quite an undertaking.
I think, really, the key was narrowing down what we wanted to show, because obviously we can’t take on all 38 plays. We focused on preparing ensembles for three of the plays: “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Measure for Measure.”

For “Romeo and Juliet,” we were really inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s film remake. We’re partnering with SwedLife on Cherokee Street, who will be outfitting the Montagues with a more relaxed style, and I’ll be pulling together some more severe Spanish-style pieces for the Capulets, who are portrayed as a little more poised. “The Taming of the Shrew” will focus on androgyny in the work of Shakespeare, with very opulent pieces portraying them as wild characters who aren’t concerned about gender norms or the status quo. For “Measure for Measure,” we were really inspired by the themes of anarchy and religion, so some pieces are very rebellious. Instead of doing a classic fashion presentation or runway show, these stories without words are going to come to life.

How did you prepare your approach to those themes and stories through the lens of fashion?
I am not a Shakespeare expert, so I had to really learn a little more about each of these works. The themes ultimately boil down to the fact that they can be modernized in a way that non-Shakespeare experts can identify with the looks and styling, while Shakespeare fans can identify deeper nuances that you’d only know if you were familiar with the work itself.

After we narrowed down the plays we wanted to feature, I had some styling in mind that really lined up with what we wanted to portray. The line is very thin between theatre and fashion, especially now. There’s so much theatrics that goes into shows nowadays. I was really inspired by Gucci for how I’ll style the “Taming of the Shrew” set in particular, because it’s a really theatrical experience when you see these higher-end runway shows these days. They’re portraying a story, instead of just throwing clothes on a runway. They understand that need to do more than what they used to in order to maintain people’s interest.

Perhaps I’m assuming more than I should, but it seems that certain audiences can be intimidated by fashion. Is that accurate, and why do you think that is?
I think that definitely exists, and I think in part it comes from years of being told we need to fit into a certain mold or stay within the status quo, especially in the Midwest. There’s this air of needing to do the same thing as other people, because there’s comfort in it. It’s scary for people to take a risk.

But I think once people explore events like this one, or the theater, they start to realize, “I could do more with my wardrobe—I can be as crazy as I want!” It’s finding that moment where you’re encouraged to do the different thing, and that’s across the board no matter what you’re doing. It’s intimidating to take risks. My biggest pet peeve I hear is when people say things like, “You can pull that off, but I can’t.” I always want to say, “You can! You just have to do it in your own way that’s outside the box.”

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You’re a very talented stylist and could work anywhere you like. What do you love about St. Louis?
I just talked about this with [ALIVE Editor-in-Chief] Attilio D’Agostino. When you’re able to be creative and in an environment with people you are comfortable with and in an area you know really well, that you believe in, it gives extra power to what you’re doing; you’re doing it for people you know and respect, organizations you want to rise in your own community.

There are definitely benefits to doing that in other cities as well, but in the creative community here there are always people who want to push the envelope, and we really have the freedom to do that [in St. Louis]. We’re not restricted by rent and cost of living. We’re able to really explore those avenues.

What is your advice for how to arrive at one’s own personal style?
I think the best way is to just start really small. For example, if you’re someone who always wears black, take a little bit of a risk in buying something new. It’s amazing how much people want to blend in until they find something that makes them really stand out, and then they receive encouragement. Sometimes that’s what you need to take a risk and do something a little different. That can go for any habit that you have, fashion or otherwise: starting small.

Also, you don’t have to have a reason to wear something apart from the fact that it makes you happy and feel good about yourself.

All past images of Shake 38 provided by J. David Levy Photography.
Featured photo by Robbie Noble.

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