Coat of Many Colors
Christine Milodragovich stitches it all together seamlessly
by Patia Stephens
Costumes designed by Milodragovich for Titania and the fairies in UM's 1997 A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The first time Christine Milodragovich designed the costumes for a play, Whoopee-Ti-Yi-Yo, back in 1989, the former home economics teacher was petrified.
"I was just as green as any student," Milodragovich says. "I gulped and said yes."
Now, after working on costumes for more than fifty productions, she's an old pro. She speaks of "building" costumes as if they were made of wood and nails instead of fabric and feathers and glitter and glue. This year she added another hat to her own costume: she became interim dean of the School of Fine Arts.
Milodragovich first came to UM in 1973 as a home economics instructor specializing in clothing and textiles. She had received her training at Washington State University, where she worked as a teaching assistant while completing her master's degree.
"By the time I got out of grad school, I knew I wanted to teach," she says. "I enjoyed seeing the light bulb go on for people."
When offered the job in Montana, Milodragovich thought she'd stay two years, tops. Now she's celebrating her twenty-fifth anniversary at UM. She's made a few alterations along the way. Given the option of joining the School of Education faculty when home economics was phased out of the curriculum, she found herself instead drawn to the School of Fine Arts.
"What I had been teaching in home economics was closely related to costume design," she says, "so that was an obvious choice."
Milodragovich transferred her skills to theater--with a little tweaking. "As one example, in home economics I would give a lecture on stain removal. In theater I might teach students how to put stains on," she says.
The transition was scary, she remembers, but also "incredibly invigorating."
Milodragovich immersed herself in the study of theater--sitting in on classes, attending departmental meetings and volunteering to work on productions. By the time the opportunity to costume Whoopee-Ti-Yi-Yo came along, she knew enough to get by.
"What I quickly found out was that I had a bag of tricks--a set of skills--that could be applied to theater," she says. "My knowledge about theater history and literature would take care of itself."
In the costume shop: "You become more aware of how students learn. You can help them move to the next step," says Milodragovich (left).
While she has learned the theatrical ropes, she also has worked her way up through the ranks of instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, co-chair of the Department of Drama/Dance and, now, interim dean. She recently decided against throwing her hat in the ring for the permanent position, although she enjoys filling in this year.
The role of dean has given Milodragovich yet another set of skills to master. She's worked on complex projects such as faculty evaluations, donor development with the UM Foundation and course scheduling.
Colleague Randy Bolton describes Milodragovich as "highly respected and valued" by faculty, staff and students within the School of Fine Arts.
"I think she was chosen to be interim dean because of her fairness, her ability to listen and interact with people, and her flexibility," says Bolton, co-chair of the Department of Drama/Dance. "And she has proceeded in just that way. She has approached her work as dean in the same problem-solving manner that she has approached her design work and her teaching."
When asked if she misses teaching, the dean responds without hesitation: "Absolutely."
On a tour of the costume shop she shows off the giant dye vat, the industrial sewing machines, the baskets of color-coordinated thread. She stops to talk to a man at work on a rush sewing job for a play opening that evening.
"I really enjoy working in the costume shop, side by side with students," she says. "It's different than going into a classroom. Because you're spending so much time together in the shop, you become more aware of how students learn. You can help them move to the next step."
Next door to the costume shop is one of several costume storage areas. Racks of clothing--vests, jackets, dresses--share space with dozens of black shoes, neatly lined up in row after row on wooden shelves. A set of curiously labeled boxes includes one named "bum rolls." Milodragovich demonstrates a bum roll, tying the white, sausage-shaped pillow over her backside, describing the Elizabethan dress that would be worn over it.
Milodragovich, who has designed costumes for everything from Cabaret to A Little Night Music to, most recently, A Whale for the Killing, enjoys the mental challenge of building costumes.
"Every show presents its own opportunity to be a good problem solver," she says. "You have to have that attitude of 'I think I can figure this out.' It really is invigorating to face a situation that you don't have a pat answer for."
Other qualities that make a good designer, she says, include a vivid imagination, the skills to carry out a vision and a passion for fabrics.
"You have to have a love of clothing and what clothing communicates to other people," she says.
The drawbacks to costume design are hard work and long hours, Milodragovich says, along with little public recognition.
"If you're excited about the end product, then that's your reward," she says.
Design technology skills such as costuming, scene construction and stage lighting are in high demand. UM fine arts design/technology graduates have gone on to careers in film, video, television, opera, ballet and theater. One of Milodragovich's former students landed a job with MTV in New York, while another became a costumer for the San Francisco Ballet.
When not building costumes or performing administrative duties, Milodragovich relaxes at home, designing and stitching quilts. She describes her quilting as based on traditional patterns but with innovations in color and texture.
"One of the things I've noticed...is that I always want a challenge for myself," she says. "That might be a design challenge, like playing with colors that appear unrelated; or it might be learning a new technique; or it might be learning background information that will inform my designs."
The featured artist in last year's Missoula Quilt Guild show, Milodragovich also co-chairs the planning committee for the guild's 2000 show.
The busy dean looks forward to getting back to teaching and co-chairing the Department of Drama/Dance in the fall. She also relishes returning to the hands-on work of costume design.
"Routine drives me nuts," she says. "I like to explore as I go along. I like to ponder."
Patia Stephens is currently pursuing a B.A. in journalism at UM.