Alicia Austin ’16 had never even attended a play before coming to the University of Mary Washington. But after her first costume design course, she realized theatre was the perfect fit.
“It was so interesting to me that I changed my major,” said Austin, who planned to study psychology but found elements of that in her new field. “I discovered that costuming could be a visual language to express each character’s personality.”
Now she’s putting those sartorial skills to work. After earning a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Mary Washington, Austin completed an MFA at Yale University. Graduating just before COVID shuttered Broadway, she made a leap from stage to screen, joining design teams for remakes of HBO’s Sex and the City and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, as well as the Hulu hit Only Murders in the Building, which just began its second season.
It’s a success story she’s been stitching together a little at a time.
“I grew up sewing out of utility, because it was cheaper to buy fabric and make clothes myself,” said Austin, who began coursework at Mary Washington, but took a break from her studies to open an upscale consignment shop in downtown Fredericksburg. “I’m not someone who goes around saying ‘I love fashion,’ but clothing always held a deeper meaning for me.”
She sold funky jackets and floral frocks, designer jeans and buttery leather boots at Madeline Ruth and later Forage. With a prime location in a college town, Austin’s small business was booming. But she still wanted to earn a college degree, so she returned to Mary Washington.
Choosing from an ensemble of electives, Austin discovered fabric modification, patterning and costume design. She had no idea what these courses entailed, she said, “but they sounded very cool.” So she reached out to Department of Theatre and Dance Chair Gregg Stull about switching majors and fast-tracking the next two years of her degree.
“Alicia brought both intention and passion to everything she did – every class, production and project,” Stull said. “She’s a remarkable and gifted artist, and I’m eager to see the great work in her future.”
Running her own business helped Austin set the stage for the pressures of doubling up on classes, while also creating costumes for UMW Theatre productions like Frozen and Assistance.
“The caliber of education I had at Mary Washington prepared me to seek the same level of academic experience at Yale,” Austin said.
She thrived in the notoriously rigorous three-year theatre program at the Ivy League school, earning the prestigious Princess Grace Award for budding theatre, dance and film artists in 2019.
Now based in Brooklyn, Austin still loves the stage, but her work on Only Murders, a streaming show about three amateur podcasters who attempt to solve a homicide in their fancy New York apartment building, allows her talent to reach a wider audience.
Her team’s dapper designs – including Selena Gomez’s marigold faux-fur coat, Martin Short’s royal purple attire and Steve Martin’s dashing fedora – have landed in the likes of Elle, InStyle and Buzzfeed. But Austin said the real stars are the leaders of the all-female costume crew.
“They’ve taught me so much about the kinds of clothes you put on characters to represent who they are,” said Austin, who might not have captured her current role without the education she found at Mary Washington.
“If you’re ambitious and can figure out what you want,” she said, “there will always be someone at UMW to guide you and help you reach those goals.”
Betty Emrey of Mindpower Inc. contributed to the reporting and writing of this story.