Courtesy of Charlie Gleberman
If Carter King ’24 could kill a fashion trend, it would be baggy clothing — the “Lower East Side, wearing a blazer 10 times too big for you” kind of thing.
Rather, King respects clothing with material integrity: structured garments, well-tailored suits or clothing that has been darted in all the right places. He has worked on a total of 17 shows, with his earliest costume designs made in his junior year of high school for “Almost Maine.” But, King insists he is “not a fashion person,” he’s a costume designer — an extremely important distinction, he said.
“Fashion isn’t my great love,” King said. “For me fashion, colloquially and non-academically, has to do with the fashion industry and fashion designers and personal clothing — clothing that is meant to be consumed by the individual. Costume is different. Costume implies some sort of heightened reality. It is trying to capture essences of character and putting it into clothes. Costume signifies events, moments, places, time.”
From sewing pieces in his parents’ basement for the virtually-performed “St. Valentine’s Home for the Forgetful and Lost” as a first year to now flying to London to research Haudenosaunee collections, King has had a wide range of design experiences.
King’s bedroom cabinet opens up to a stack of thick binders, one for each production King has worked on. The binders are full of meticulously organized reference boards, printed out receipts and scraps of fabric.
Above his bed is a “real” dream catcher, King said — not like the ones “you might find at Urban Outfitters.” Up until his coming to Yale, King grew up and lived in the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin.
While King occasionally tries to conceal his Wisconsin-accent, his upbringing and closeness to his community is something he wears on his sleeves with pride. Descending from a “long line of sewers,” he first learned how to sew from his grandmother, he said.
“My grandma tried to show me how to sew once when I was young, but I was like, ‘This is incredibly dull,’ said King. “I didn’t want to really do it, but in high school once I kind of got back into sewing and costuming design, she was very patient with me.”
King’s grandmother helped him on a 1940s victory dress for his sister, which is when she taught him how to do “funkier” techniques and designs such as a collar or how to turn points.
One of the most formative projects has been his work for the Oneida Nation’s bicentennial celebration in July 2023. His costumes were on display for his community, friends and family, which meant that feedback was largely instantaneous and from individuals who knew him very closely, he said.
For his thesis research on Oneida clothing, King traveled to London’s British Museum. Along with his work for the bicentennial celebration, King hopes that his current and future research on Oneida pieces will publicize the knowledge “hidden away in museums” and in “stacks of institutions far beyond their own means.”
“The violence of colonial history exists beyond a very literal end in history,” said King. “Understanding how original forms of knowledge can be expropriated and re-appropriated, taken very literally and very materially from Indigenous communities and my community, is part of decolonizing. Part of this work is to, unfortunately, engage in these sites and in these places of what I interpret as an extant form of colonial violence.”
King hesitates when asked about his favorite work, pointing to the “ephemerality” of performance-adjacent work and how “it’s gone so quick.” By the time he watches his hand-tailored costumes on the stage, King is often thinking about the next project and new costumes.
Much to his dismay, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time focusing on parts that “make him happy” as he dedicates to self-critiquing, he said. According to him, being a costume designer in college means constant self-scrutiny.
“If I thought I was done and as good as I’d be, I wouldn’t have come here,” said King. “It’s really important to be pretty actively critiquing yourself. That goes for any sort of work, right? The costumes fit, they were on stage, they didn’t fall apart. That’s really the bare minimum, so I always want to do better the next time.”
At the same time, being a college student designer allows him more forgiveness and grace. New student productions and theater opportunities are more “low-stakes” at Yale.
A frequent collaborator and close friend to King, Carson White ’24 also spoke on King’s attitude toward work, saying that he is “exactly as in life as in his work.” King is “one of the most principled people” she’s met in her life White added.
“He is principled, methodical, thought-out, a laborer, a technician,” White said. “Because of that, he creates gorgeous things and writes insightful critique of the world.”
According to producer and actor Clementine Rice ’24, King’s work ethic as a designer has shown her “what a great joy” it is to collaborate with fellow designers.
Even with his extensive design experience, he encounters a “productive difficulty” when trying to envision a wardrobe for more abstract characters.
In designing the costume for Titania in the upcoming production, “The Fairy Queen,” King had to envision the wardrobe of a fairy queen, a less straightforward task than his wardrobe for physics professor Marianne in “Constellations.” Simultaneously, the Shakespearean-inspired play has a theatrical legacy, which means that King must be cognizant of certain conventions mentioned in the text, he said.
“There’s such a tradition to ‘The Fairy Queen,’” he said. “People will tell you to design it like it’s a new word, to treat every play the same. But it’s a little bit difficult to divorce the gravity of these plays that have been a part of our shared culture for hundreds of years. There’s a certain pressure and there’s also certain conventions, since it is an adaptation of ‘Midsummer’ and uses the original Shakespearean texts for a lot of it.”
In 10 years from now, King said he knows that certainty and stability may not be a staple in his day-to-day life.
Though King is unsure about the residencies he will pursue in the future or if joining a union will be a part of his future, King is “hopeful” that he will continue to find a home in the reservation and engage with his community’s history.
“It’s not even about the Oneida people, but just in general. There are people who blindly follow what they were raised, detest what they were raised in,” King said. “I try to strike the happy medium. My childhood wasn’t perfect, but what are ways that I can engage with that that’s productive? The Oneida community was an important part of how I got here. They believed in me enough to let me design the works they do, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to repay their debt in full.”
Carter King’s first costume designer gig at Yale was for the Oct 2020 production of “Flores Caídos.”