Quote Unquote: Backstage with Diamond Head Theatre’s Costume Director

Diamond Head Theatre costume director Karen Wolfe recalls being very grumpy about receiving a sewing machine as a gift when she was 12 years old. But a family love for performing and musicals, combined with Singer sewing lessons, helped. Since 1985, she’s been conjuring up stage costumes full time—and enjoying the drama on- and off-stage.
Karen Wolfe
Photo: David Croxford


I got into musical theater because my dad would be in rehearsals at night doing shows for Honolulu Community Theatre [DHT’s earlier name]. And my mom, she would let us fall asleep to musical theater records. [Singing] “Why, oh why, oh why oh—why did I ever leave Ohio?” I can only remember one line of every song.


When I was 12, my best friend Dita Ramler’s mom gave us Singer sewing lessons. The first thing I sewed was a white sharkskin pleated skirt. And now, look, I’m making a living using a sewing machine. My mother thinks that’s very funny.


When I got a job at Holiday Mart in the ’70s, I became department head in the yardage department. That’s when I really got interested in fabrics and patterning because I was around it day in and day out.


I buy all the fabrics. I figure out what colors, what direction we’re going with the director. I bring all the materials in or pull it from our stock. I do all the fittings.


SEE ALSO: Explore Behind-the-Scenes of a Honolulu Costume Shop [Video]


I personally hate taffeta because you have to iron it and it never looks good and I try not to dry clean. We try to hand wash or machine wash everything.


First dress rehearsal, the dressers take over. They are the ones who are helping the actors, doing quick changes.


Beauty and the Beast was a beast of a show! But in the end I think I was the proudest of anything I’ve ever done. I called in every favor from every costumer in town and they were amazing because it just was not possible for me to build it all by myself.


We put up the rope across the entry to the costume shop because a couple got very drunk at the ‘Ilima Awards one year and rushed back here to make out.


We probably have a couple of thousand costumes but since we’re not a masquerade house, we don’t keep an outfit together. So there’s no wig, no shoes, no jewelry with it. We have to run around and pull all the pieces. The lady before me would let people come in and browse around and that’s when a lot of things were stolen. All the boas were taken.


We send people to Party City all the time. What we have that they don’t have is … there’s no two alike. Unless there’s an identical number and then we tell people we have six of those but none of the others have been rented yet.


Men want to be pirates because that’s easy for them. Ladies want to be princesses and mermaids.