By Mikael Krummel

Jonna Hayden designs and builds costumes—incredible costumes!

Her costumes aren’t the ones you might find at Halloween parties or those you might see at special social events. Hayden does have an affinity for science fiction and fantasy fashion, including that of Star Trek and comic book conventions. And she also has long-standing ties to the historical roleplaying activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and a record of crafting amazing garments for the Renaissance Faire crowd.

But, for the past 20 years, Hayden’s fashion artistry has been increasingly showcased on local and regional stages. Her expert tailoring and costume design are now associated with the best of the Eugene-area performing arts scene.

She’s known for dressing the artists who work in theater troupes, dance groups, and musical performance companies. Those groups include a long list of small, successful performing arts organizations as well as all the resident arts companies at the Hult Center: Eugene Opera, Eugene Ballet, Eugene Symphony, Eugene Concert Choir, and Ballet Fantastique.

It’s fair to say that Jonna Hayden is a woman of substance and an artist of unique personal design.

Hayden started sewing when she was 5 years old. Raised in a Navy family, young Jonna followed the example of her hard-working mother, who tailored dresses for military officers’ wives.

“I was always in fabric stores,” Hayden says. “I remember riding in shopping carts and running my hand across fabrics as Mom made her way down the store aisles. And I remember the sound of flipping pages in pattern books. To me that was home!”

But Hayden’s most affecting childhood memory, she says, is rooted in a movie she watched on TV one day while mother sewed. The film was The King and I, and Hayden remembers how utterly captivated she was by the film’s famous ballroom scene featuring Deborah Kerr dancing with Yul Brynner. In that scene, Kerr is wearing an exceptionally stunning platinum ballroom gown. The dress inspired an indelible vision for Hayden, setting the bar for artistic perfection that shaped her key personal aspirations for the past 40 years.

Late in her teenage years, Hayden discovered a fascination with fashion, particularly as it reflected human history. She embraced the costumed theatrics of the local SCA chapter and took classes in art history and costume design.

“I dove into it with both feet; it was my hobby and my passion,” she says. “I began delving into the philosophy of fashion and started asking questions. I asked myself why people wear what they wear. Why do skirts get short in good times and longer in bad times? Why blue plaid in Danish depictions of the Virgin Mary? Why do fashions change with the times? Those kinds of questions naturally led me to costume design, because it allowed me to explore characters and the whys of what they were wearing and doing, and how you represent them through what they have on.”

Hayden’s obsession with costume design and the relationship between fashion and history eventually led to a call from the Eugene Opera. The opera company wanted to know if she could help them with a sewing project. According to Hayden, the net result was “pretty much my building an entire Madame Butterfly.”

Following Madame Butterfly, Hayden’s work with local arts companies steadily increased. She secured regular work as a stitcher under the direction of Eugene’s better-known arts designers and producers. And then she signed on to Eugene Opera’s 2010 production of La Bohème. It marked the first time Hayden fully designed a major arts project from scratch and the first time she considered the possibility she was evolving into an artist—by her definition, into “somebody who looks at things and asks themselves, ‘How can I do that differently?’”

So what makes Jonna Hayden different? What distinguishes her work from that of other stitchers and costume designers? Some differences can be found in the breadth of her artistry: small ensemble theater and monster stage productions; classic to contemporary operas of varied scale; boutique dance shows and major stage productions by Eugene’s principal dance companies.

Other Hayden hallmarks include the principles that consistently guide her work: Her dedication to historical aesthetics and accuracy, the expert craftsmanship invested in every fashion item she builds, her ability to create costume magic when challenged by modest budgets and also create majestic designs when more money is available.

And then there’s her unfailing belief that every singer, actor, or dancer she designs a costume for must ultimately become one with their costume. It’s about artist-to-artist collaboration. “If a dancer, for example, is worrying that they might rip out their pants, I’ve failed my job,” Hayden says. “They need to be completely comfortable with their costume to the point of forgetting what they have on.”

Hayden takes pride in her work. “I’ve gotten to the point in my career where if I feel I’m not going to be able to collaborate with an artist, if I’m just a stitcher subjugated to the demands of another designer, I’ll walk away,” she says.

She is strong-minded and strong-willed, driven but pragmatic, compassionate, savvy, respected, a complicated woman of sharp intelligence and deep emotion, and a shining talent who dances between self-defined extreme introversion, harsh self-criticism, and self-acknowledged arrogance.

“There’s nothing traditional about how I became a fashion designer,” Hayden says with a grin. “Someday, when I make the ball gown from The King and I, and I finally feel I’m at the point where I can make it the way it needs to be made, I’ll pack up my sewing machines . . . then I’ll be done!”