Costume designer makes her way from Broadway to Iowa State University

Sara Jablon fitting student for costume

After dressing actors for 10 years on Broadway, Sara Jablon is working as a guest designer for ISU Theatre as she pursues her Ph.D. (Larger image) Photo by Amy Vinchattle

AMES, Iowa – With only a few minutes to spare before her next fitting, Sara Jablon is in a dressing room shopping online for a piece of clothing that’s gone missing from the wardrobe. With only days to go before opening night, there’s not a lot of time to build a new piece or go rummaging through a second-hand store for a replacement. This is just one of the challenges of dressing 25 actors for a show with more than 50 different costumes – there’s always a last-minute need.

Jablon no more than clicks submit on her order – opting to expedite shipping to make sure the missing piece arrives in time for dress rehearsal – and the next actor is walking through the dressing room door to be fitted. Never short on energy, Jablon springs into action pulling the character’s pants, jackets and a vest from a large clothing rack.

This is life as a costume designer. After spending days sketching the wardrobe for each character, it’s time for Jablon’s designs to come to life. She aims to create an emotional connection between the actor and their character, as well as the audience and the character, through the costumes she designs. And it doesn’t matter if the actor is taking the stage for a Broadway musical or a student production at Iowa State University. As Jablon will tell you, “theater is theater” and the process is always the same, regardless of where the stage is set.  

Sara Jablon's sketches

The wall outside the dressing room is covered with Sara Jablon's sketches for several of the costumes in the show. (Larger image)

“My job is to interpret the director’s vision and concept into clothing. I have these multiple streams of inspiration – the director’s concept, the script and the historical fashion of the period,” Jablon said. “I have to take these three things and combine them to create the outfit the character would wear at this point in time.”

As a guest designer for ISU Theatre’s “Spring Awakening,” Jablon is also pursuing a Ph.D. in fashion and apparel. The path that led her to Iowa State is far from typical. Unlike her colleagues or other ISU students who may aspire to one day work on Broadway, Jablon spent 10 years there dressing actors for productions of the Lion King, Cabaret and Rent. It was an amazing experience, but during that same time she got a random chance to teach a college course, which led to other teaching opportunities and ultimately a big change.     

“I packed up my life in New York and moved across the country in 2012,” Jablon said. “I decided that it was time to make a change. The thing with working wardrobe is that whenever other people are off work, you’re working. We work nights and weekends and it got a little difficult and draining. But more importantly, I realized that I love teaching and that I want to pursue it full time.”

Finding a way to share her passion

It is fair to say Iowa State was not initially on Jablon’s radar when she started looking at graduate programs. The life-long East Coast girl had reservations about moving to the Midwest. But in the end, it was the quality of the academic program and opportunities to continue working in theater that made it an easy decision, she said.

“It has been quite a transition. Ames is definitely a great town, but it is a town, and I moved from, and really love, a city,” Jablon said. “Also, going from working and making a living and teaching, to earning very little money and being a student has required a massive change of perspective.

“I have learned so much. I had no idea how much I didn't know when I got here,” she added. “I've presented at conferences, I'm about to be published and I've had many opportunities I would never have had without ISU and the wonderful professors I work with. While I miss New York and the East Coast, and I’m a little anxious about employment once I finish here, right now, I can confidently say that coming here was the right choice.”

Sara Jablon hemming pant leg

Sara Jablon is responsible for dressing 25 actors for a show with more than 50 costumes. (Larger image) Photo by Amy Vinchattle

Teaching and working with student productions has given her the opportunity to share her passion and experience with others at Iowa State. Jablon hopes to complete her dissertation, which combines the history of fashion and apparel with costume design, in the spring of 2016. She has found little practical research that focuses on costume design, so she is researching different design styles to see which best communicates with the audience without being a distraction.        

100th anniversary of ISU Theatre

The opening of “Spring Awakening” on Oct. 3 is the first of six productions celebrating the 100th anniversary of ISU Theatre. There will also be a gala celebration on Nov. 15 that will showcase performances by students, alumni, faculty and staff.

“Spring Awakening” will run for two weekends. More information about performance times, ticket prices and future productions can be found at: