Kendra Rai on Wings and Lion’s Feet and What to Wear to a Night Club

Woman of Red Sashes - sketch and costume

Woman of Red Sashes – sketch and costume

Award winning costume designer Kendra Rai again brings her epic imagination and talent to Constellation for Gilgamesh. The Washington Post says, ” Kendra Rai contributes resplendent bright-hued costumes for the divine and mortal characters” and  The Washingtonian writes “the costumes go a long way toward lending a mystical air to this interpretation of one of history’s oldest stories.”  We talked with Kendra about her inspiration and her process of creating Mesopotamian inspired costumes for a modern audience.

1. Where did you look for inspiration for this production? How did you translate the ancient into a modern day ‘understanding’. 

I actually got inspired watching HBO’s Game of Thrones – it is big & epic, medieval and artistic. But the costumes don’t really fit into a period. This is more and more common. Like in the series Rome the  costumes are more like silhouettes, complete with sewing details that they didn’t have in time period. For Gilgamesh, we could have done  real Mesopotamia. But the story is quick and fast and there are so many epic hero moments happening – it didn’t need to be set in that time period. In the

shot from Game of Thrones

shot from Game of Thrones

Mesopatamian age, most people were not clothed anyway!  The kings and queens wore Yak fur and toga-esque skins.

In our costumes, the tassels represent the yak fur. My source material included carvings, Gilgamesh carvings, Mesopotamian jewelry, headpieces. The Queen’s headpiece, made by Josh Kelly, is probably most accurate. The printing used in costumes is from ancient woodblock techniques.

Left - Mesopotamian head-pieceat British Museum. Right - Ninsun's head-piece

Left – Mesopotamian head-pieceat British Museum. Right – Ninsun’s head-piece

2. How did you work with Allison and the actors on Gilgamesh?

Allison and I are getting our collaboration down to a science. It is so comforting. I’m no longer the new kid at the table. When we start to work on a project now, I know what she wants to see and how to get her feeling comfortable.

Here is how we work

1. Research: I start with lots of images…research per character…narrow down from that…

2. I show Allison pencil drawings.

3. Allison approves the drawings – she can really tell from those where I’m going.

4. Sketches. I do these before meeting actors – I have 3 weeks from when they start rehearsal to when they start dress. Not a lot of time.

5. Get started making the costumes!

6. Meet actors and make any necessary changes… (confession: I might Facebook them to do some stealth research…to see if can they wear these clothes!).

Kendra's sketch of Gilgamesh costume and the final costume on Joel David Santner

Kendra’s sketch of Gilgamesh costume and the final costume on Joel David Santner

3. Tell us about the women’s costumes – in particular Ishtar and the Woman of Red Sashes – they work as prop pieces as well as costumes, which is fantastic.

Woman of Red Sashes – I had seen some beautiful image of a woman who had rings all over body with red veils – she was turning in the picture. Emma (The Woman of Red Sashes)  is completely dressed – open wide pants and wrap tops – she is covered up and quickly can get out of it. She  has a belt of rings and rings around her shoulders. Emma is a dream performer – she automatically figures it out. She saw the rendering and knew how she wanted it to work – its was very collaborative. This is my husband’s favorite costume.

 Ishtar – My inspiration was a metal dress at the Tony’s.  Ishtar must look like the Goddess of War. The breastplate is molded leather and collar piece were made by Josh Kelly.

Ishtar's wings

Ishtar’s wings

I wanted her to have Lion Feet. Ancient drawings of Ishtar have a lion feel. We bought white satin wolverine slippers for Halloween and put claws on and painted them for $30! (the Loubutin pumps retailed for about $1500)

The wings are [the Goddess] Iris wings. I discovered them in belly dancing and used something similar in the Green Bird. Nora is tiny – and she can use the wings to make herself tall and threatening.

Christian Loubutin Lion Feet Shoes

Christian Loubutin Lion Feet Shoes

4. What is/are your favorites? Ishtar. What would you wear to a nightclub? Well…if I were Emma Jaster…!!!  My favorite is Ishtar without the wings.

(Kendra does an NPR show every Halloween and recommends for any costume: no wings!

5. What is next for you?

I do costumes for the George Washington ACA end of year showcase (which Joel was part of years ago ) One Jacobean and one Shakespeare. Then I’m costuming Cat in the Hat at Adventure Theatre. 

Read more about Kendra on her website.

cat in hat


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