Allison Pearce OPC ’05: From Costume Design to Country Music

On any given week, you might find costume designer Allison Pearce OPC ’05 at her studio in Port Richmond. Or selling some of her new apparel line around Philadelphia. Or in New York working on an episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). You might even find her performing with her band, Double Wild, at Bob & Barbara’s Lounge on South Street, where she hosts the monthly country music party.

On one particular week in mid-October, though, Pearce was walking through the aisles of a TJ Maxx in Miami searching for a certain shade of blue fabric for dancers appearing in
a short film called Swamp Lake being shot in the Everglades. Florida sunsets are a particular dusty blue and she wanted material that would capture that feeling. Designing for dancers is challenging because the costumes must be sturdy yet allow for a full range of movement. Oh, and adding a few more degrees of complexity here, there are alligators.

“We had to take air boats to get to set,” Pearce explained, “and we were shooting
on an alligator farm so there were literally alligators everywhere.” While Pearce was trying to put the finishing touches on her beautiful costumes, someone armed only with a stick was responsible for keeping the gators from venturing too close. Pearce did not have time to pay much notice.

Asked to identify which of the many hats she wears best describes her professionally, Pearce paused. “I guess I’m a designer,” she concluded. “I like to mess around and experiment with a lot of different materials. But I’m a freelancer. I go where the work takes me.”

Over the course of a relatively short career, Pearce has designed for a wide range of outlets, including TV shows, feature films, short films, music videos, commercials and print advertisements. Her work, for clients such as the Gap, Walmart, Morgan Stanley, and the New York City Ballet, has appeared everywhere from The Atlantic to ESPN’s magazine. No matter the format, she explained, the aim of costume design “is to let the actors have a playground to do what they want to do with the character. The costumes shouldn’t be distracting.”

Each project, though, presents its own challenges—even the ones without alligators. A 2016 commercial for Penn State, for example, required the characters to have break-away costumes. An actor would walk along wearing one costume and then rip it o to reveal a different costume underneath.

Costume design, like set design, is critical to setting the mood of an entire project. As Pearce explained it, her job “helps the director bring the character to life visually. Why does the character look a certain way? It’s very psychological.” When done well, costume design dovetails with set design to create a unified theme. If Pearce is designing an outfit for someone seated on a couch, what color is the couch? What color are the background walls? Everything can influence the way a character is dressed.

Nowhere is the pace for this work faster than it is on SNL, where Pearce is an assistant costume designer during the show’s September-to-May season.

She joined the show in 2015 after working with SNL costume designer Jill Bream on a Ford car commercial starring Kate McKinnon. Pearce now takes the train to New York each week when SNL is in production. After the scripts are green lit on Wednesday night, costume designers meet with the writers and directors to decide what look they want. The next morning, she said, “we hit the ground running.”

Allison Pearce on an airboat on set in the Everglades.

The show is famous for its timeliness. During the 2016 election, for example, Hillary Clinton might have worn a particular style of suit in a midweek debate and the show would have an exact copy for the opening on Saturday night. Fortunately, Pearce said, SNL has “the best tailor shop in film and television. Anything I need in the world, I can design it and they can make it for me.”

Naturally, the time pressure for a weekly live show is intense. Pearce says that SNL’s video shorts are usually filmed in a single day. “It happens really fast.”

About a year and a half ago, Pearce—a 2009 graduate of the Parsons School of Design—introduced her own clothing line, called simply Pearce. She describes her designs on her website: “Pearce makes the basics of the past, present, and future in natural fabrics. Comfortable, wearable, and simple with a nod to 1940s loungewear and daywear. Cuts that are freeing, moveable, and flattering for all body types.” All of her designs are gender-neutral.

It was also important that they be made only with sustainable materials. “A lot of
the ‘fast’ fashion you see is not made with humanity in mind, in factories that don’t give a lot of thought to environmental conditions,” she explained. “I felt that there was a need to make things on a smaller scale and with more specialty.” Pearce releases her collections in small numbers throughout the year rather than seasonally. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said.

Singing for Joe Fitzmartin in Quakers Dozen showcased Pearce’s musical talents at Penn Charter. Her outlet now is her band, Double Wild, where she sings and plays guitar at venues around the area. In a description PC’s founder no doubt would have loved, Double Wild says it plays “country music from Billy Penn’s Greene Country Towne.”

Pearce’s emerging career could go in many different directions, which suits her fine. She likes having a lot of balls in the air. “I think I have problems taking on too much at one time,” she admitted, “but I like to be continually creating, and I enjoy doing lots of different things. Variety is the spice of life.”