Designer tells stories through costumes

Student Jeff Sturdivant creates theater garb.

Jeff Sturdivant created costumes for his action figures growing up, crafting theater sets from shoe boxes to reflect his vision.

“When I was growing up I would always make ‘environments’ for my action figures,” he said. “I would always build them their own laboratory or something in an old shoe box. And that evolved into eventually making them different capes or different clothes to wear.”

Sturdivant, 31, a senior in the graduate theater program, is now a costume designer whose works have been displayed in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the U.K., Israel and India.

His love for theater and design began at an early age. Despite an upbringing in Kentucky, Sturdivant was determined to make it big in New York City. He dedicated his time to shaping his skills as a young costume designer at the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It’s where Nicole Scherzinger and an actress named Jennifer Lawrence went to school,” Sturdivant said. “There, I studied all of the technical elements of production: lights, sound, costumes, scenery.”

He landed his first job in a costume shop when he was 16 years old. Sturdivant stuck firm to his path, eventually landing his first internship with Donna Lawrence, the designer of a play he remembers seeing as a child.

“Getting to see her doing it kind of validated the point of that’s what I want to do,” he said.

Today, Sturdivant has developed an impressive resume. He received his BFA from Webster University and attended graduated from Temple in 2013. He’s designed for the Joyce Theater in New York City, Timber Lake Playhouse in Illinois and the local Kun-Yang Lin Dancers.

“When I graduated the first time, I just went and did it,” Sturdivant said. “And I always worked during the summers when I was in college the first time, so I had a lot of experience by the time I graduated college already.”

Theater graduate student Hannah Gold, 27, worked with Sturdivant in Temple’s production of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” As a fellow grad student with Sturdivant, she knows his work as a designer well.

“He is a fantastic designer, collaborator and whip-smart. In my experiences with Jeff, he always has a super-clear vision and is excellent at executing it,” Gold said.

Though his determination and hard work have driven Sturdivant to success, the life of a costume designer has its challenges. Sturdivant said the most difficult part about being a designer is “doing something that you love even though that something that you love doesn’t always pay the bills.”

“You really have to like doing costume designing because it’s not a very glamorous job,” he said. “Even though it sounds very glamorous, it’s actually not. It’s really, I would say, underappreciated and undervalued.”

But some things make it all worth it—like seeing a photo of one of his designs appear in The New York Times.

“In December 2014, I had two ballets premiere at the Joyce Theater in New York City with a ballet company I used to do wardrobe for and now am designing for, Les Ballets Trockadero, and on the first page of the Arts section of the New York Times, there was a picture of a costume I designed,” he said.

But Sturdivant is still trying to figure out how to make a living doing what he loves.

“People always say, ‘Don’t do it because you want to make money, do it because you love it,’” he said. “But I want to do both—make money and love doing it. I’m still figuring it out. Usually I’m working three jobs at once, and not necessarily on top of each other. It’s usually freelance work. I’ll be doing costumes for one company, props for another, designing for another one.”

Sturdivant also assists photographer Michelle Flood as a prop stylist with her business in New York. She specializes in window displays, retail design, interior design, television and fashion shoots. Sturdivant describes Flood as a “friend, mentor and super stylist.”

Currently, Sturdivant is also teaching Introduction to Design at Temple, a required class for all theater majors.

Associate professor of theater Donna Snow has worked with Sturdivant on the university’s productions of “Brigadoon” and “Anything Goes.”

“I think he is a brilliant designer in that he is sensitive and insightful about the character as well as the actor playing the character,” Snow said. “The clothes he designed felt like a natural extension of my own process, inspiring but not foreign in any way—the silhouette, fabrics, textures, colors—were a physical realization of what was happening inside for me, so that our work came together in creating the character.”

“Costume designing is letting the clothes tell as much of the story as the person who is telling the story. It’s meant to clarify things, and not confuse the audience,” he added.

After graduation this May, Sturdivant is ready to keep working toward becoming internationally known for his work.

“My goal is to be designing costumes and that would pay for my life,” he said. “That would be enough for me, if my work as a costume designer provided for me.”

Katelyn Evans can be reached at

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