Marja-Liisa Pihlak: Being the Head of Costumes and the Joy of Creativity.

Every artist knows the importance of having a costume that makes you feel good and confident, one that helps you to get into your role. There are days that you can arrive at the theater before a show very much not in the mood. But stepping into a beautiful costume can be a huge help in making that mental shift to performance mode. Not only that but putting on a costume is vital to stepping into your role. And for the audience, what is worn on stage is part of communication just as much as the music and dancing! The cuts, the colors, the shapes, and styles all serve to express emotion, status, a particular era or creature. But, unfortunately, at the end of the night, when the dancers and orchestra take their bow, often the costume department, cutters, and seamstresses are never praised if even thought about. This to me is so sad. They work so hard and are just as much artists as we (the dancers or musicians) are. It’s time they get the limelight for once. So, I’m very happy to introduce to you the head of the costume department of the Estonian National Opera, Marja-Liisa Pihlak.

Marja-Liisa is a Tallinn girl through and through. She was born and raised in Tallinn and also finished her university studies at the Tallinn University of Technology. Her love for making clothes was birthed at a very young age as she watched her mom regularly make clothes for her.

Marja-Liisa Pihlak : Photo by Laura Nestor

“I was quite young. I remember, when I was about five, my mom used to sew clothes for us because, in the Soviet times, there was nothing to buy. So ya, she sewed clothes for people we knew, and then I started also. I started with dolls then later made my own clothes as well. Some of the things were so crazy, I don’t want to show any pictures, haha. One thing that has stuck is that I love pink colors. It has been always like this. It doesn’t go away! I try and try, but…”

Following her childhood love for clothes making, she finished a degree in cutting and pattern making. 

“I studied first in the technical school, cutting and pattern making, then I joined the costume department in the Estonian National Opera, and later I studied fashion design at the Academy of Arts. It was hard managing both things, but I was so young, I didn’t mind, it was only work and school.”

Funny enough, what drew Marja to the theater wasn’t an interest in the production of costumes, but simply that she saw that they were hiring.

“I thought, oh, why not? I will try. It was fifteen years ago! I just celebrated my jubilee on the first of September! But you know the work was very interesting and I wasn’t afraid.”

Maarja didn’t remain a cutter for very long, however. Four years into her work with the theater the position as head of the department opened up.

“The previous head of the department, she left, and then I thought, hmm, why not? I always knew I wanted to do something like this, and cutting was maybe not my best side, so when the new general director came, Aiver Mae, someone suggest me to him, and then I got the position.

But it was very hard in the beginning. Because when the previous lady left here, I didn’t know anything! So I had to learn everything by myself. I got four days of training, and then she was gone.”

Now as head of costumes Marja-Liisa’s days are full of different tasks as she oversees not only the costume making but also the upkeep and rental department.

“Usually I come quite early, but work officially starts at 9 am. Sometimes I sew something for myself quickly, then I start working here. Now I’m working on four productions, which means I need to work with the designer, figure out exactly what cuts they want, then I order the fabrics, also all the sequins, embroidery, etc. I schedule and oversee fittings, and also I need to manage the washing room, costume rentals, the dressers- though the dressers are quite independent, and also the shoe-makers and hat makers, so everything. I have to manage everything from the shoes, hats, jewelry, underwear, whatever is a part of the costume.”

Marja-Liisa playing around with some costume parts for the up coming ballet Louis XIV.

Often as an audience member, one doesn’t think of all the sequins, layers of different fabrics, thread, beads, etc that goes into making one outfit! You just see the finished product on stage. But there is so much work that makes a design on paper become a reality on stage!

This may seem very consuming, however, Marja-Liisa has a side hustle of her own! She makes bridal wear!

“Ya, It’s my hobby. I made my first wedding gown about ten years ago for my sister’s wedding. Then it progressed as word spread. But now with Covid, it’s been two years since I’ve made any. But it’s very interesting and I like it. It is definitely still closer to a costume than normal clothes.”

Over the last fifteen years, Marja-Liisa says she still has not grown tired of working in the theater and that it is mainly because it’s so creative and hardly ever repetitive.

“Our work here in the costume department is so interesting all the time, every production is new and exciting, there is never something that is the same. Always bigger and more complicated! And actually, I love ballet. One really special ballet was Manon. I had to work quite a lot by myself, I didn’t have a designer here and it was a very big production! In the end, though the costume department got a prize! But, every production is new and interesting so they are all that I love. For me, the first dress rehearsal is always so magical because you get to see everything come together. 

Of course, I have ups and downs also. The most challenging time was when I came back to work after maternity leave and my daughter was so little, she was two. This was very difficult because she was ill all the time and I had to jump back and forth, but otherwise, I’ve managed.”

Another fun part of the job is getting to try on the costumes yourself from time to time!

In closing, Marja-Liisa made a statement that I feel is applicable no matter what department you work in or what job you have. 

“You have to remember what you love about your work. Even if you’re feeling down, think about those positive things.”

This, my friends, is key, “remember what you love…”

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