From Broadway to the Guthrie to Holidazzle: A Jack Edwards retrospective

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Costume from The Misanthrope
At age 19, armed with a degree from Ithaca College, a suitcase, and five dollars in his pocket, Jack Edwards headed to New York to start a career in design. Though he thought this would be impossible because of his young age and inexperience, it took him just two weeks to land a job with a fashion house.

Fifty years later, as the Goldstein Museum of Design prepares to honor Edwards in its latest exhibition, "Character in Costume: A Jack Edwards Retrospective," he is surprised that anyone took notice of his work.

"It's a fabulous honor, and it's also very shocking," he says. "I didn't go to the University [of Minnesota], and I always thought that I wasn't regarded very highly as a designer. I asked, 'Why me?' and I was told that I was a major player in the cultural aspects of Minneapolis for many, many years. I didn't think that anyone noticed! But, really, how could I not be pleased?"
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Sketch by Jack Edwards, from Three Sisters
For Tim Carroll, guest curator of the exhibition, Edwards was an obvious choice for a showcase at the Goldstein.

"Jack's entire career is in design," Carroll says."He's done theater, fashion, couture, opera, and he's designed for musicians like Prince and Lorie Line. He's covered every kind of performer."

Growing up in small towns in Pennsylvania with a graduating high school class of three students, Edwards wasn't designing dresses for famous singers or opera houses. In fact, he started making hats, not dresses. His star client was his mother. Using wire hangers covered with lace, he made Easter hats for her to wear to church. Laughing, he recalls that one hat was so big that it took up three seats in the pew. His mother wore it with pride.

It wasn't until college that he made his first dress as a favor for a friend he was dancing with in a student show. He had little experience other than watching his mother, who was a talented dressmaker herself.

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Jack Edwards
"It was a dress with layers and layers of gray chiffon," he says. "Oh god, I'd hate to think what it looked like. I was just happy that it stuck together!"

While his first dress may not have been high fashion, Edwards went on to have a successful career in major cities throughout the country. It seemed that no matter where he was, people took notice to his passion, work ethic, and vision. He spent time designing in New York City, Santa Fe, Hollywood, and Minneapolis with a host of top design houses, actors, musicians, and theaters. His career highlights include designing for the Santa Fe Opera, assisting Broadway designer Jane Greenwood and under her direction designing Richard Burton's Hamlet costume, and helping design all of the clothing Katharine Hepburn wore onstage in Coco. Doing a spot-on impression, he recalls a headstrong Katharine demanding that all of the clothing that was made for her in London to play the role of Coco Chanel be remade because the color was "itchy" and she didn't like it.
 
Perhaps best known locally for his costume work at the Guthrie Theater, Edwards spent 18 years bringing characters to life through design. He worked on anywhere from two to five shows a year, and always took his work very seriously, doing hours of research, making trips to New York to buy fabric, and perfecting every aspect of his costumes, down to the very last button.

"My biggest compliment at the Guthrie was when an actor came in for a fitting and they looked in the mirror and said, 'Now I know how to play this role,'" he says. "That was my role -- to support art."

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The Importance of Being Ernest
Upholding the vision of the actor, script, playwright, and director has always been a priority to Edwards. He says that he was once told by an artistic director at the Guthrie that his costumes didn't have a "Jack Edwards stamp."

"I took that as a compliment, even though I knew it wasn't meant to be one," he says. "Designing isn't about me. I'm there to help the actor, and to further the idea of the playwright. This is not a 'Jack Edwards show.' I'm not sure that most designers feel this way, but I do. To me, it's about integrity."

Carroll says that Edwards's tenure at the Guthrie is remarkable, and calls him a living piece of history.

"Jack worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie all the way down to Joe Dowling, who is the current artistic director," he says. "He saw every kind of different director temperament at the Guthrie, both good and bad. There have been people that he's admired working with, and people that he has pulled his hair out working with, but he stuck to his guns and he never compromised. He always considered the script the important aspect and I think that's a significant accomplishment."

After almost 20 years at the Guthrie, Edwards felt that the theater was taking actions to force him to leave, presumably, he says, because of his strong personality and his tendency to be a bit of a "sticky whisket." He was devastated to leave the job that he loved so much, but found a new passion working with Jack Barkla on the Dayton's Holiday Show and the Holidazzle Parade.

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Jack Edwards
"I always said that all of the traffic jams in downtown Minneapolis around Christmas were because of Jack and me," he says.

While he no longer works on large-scale projects like the Macy's holiday exhibit, Edwards, now age 77, is still designing and has moved into creating jewelry. His jewelry, along with costumes, sketches, press clips, and photographs highlighting his career will be on display at the Goldstein.

"Jack's influence is far reaching, and he's touched so many people in the arts here in the Twin Cities," Carroll says. "There's a really good reason to come to the exhibition as far as history, but on a more superficial level, this show is really fun. There's so much to look at and enjoy."

The Goldstein will host a public opening reception on Friday, January 20 and the exhibition will be open for viewing until May 20.

IF YOU GO:
Goldstein Museum of Design
364 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Ave, St. Paul
Opening reception
6-8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 20, followed by an after party at Pracna

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Great Expectations


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