Last spring, as guests at the Bakersfield Museum of Art’s annual fundraiser ArtMix walked through the dramatic and colorful entrance, little did they know it was the work of the event’s chairwoman, a former renowned costume designer.

“We used over 2,000 feet of cellophane, which was backlit,” said its creator, Jenny Vaughan. “We have done some pretty fun things for the ArtMix hallway, but this three-dimensional Mondrian-inspired one was a new level.”

A year ago, after much coaxing, Vaughan agreed to give a First Wednesday presentation at the museum about her former life as a sought-after costumer. Those in attendance were nothing short of amazed by the ornate costumes and detailed sketches she’d brought with her.

“Not many people here know about what I used to do and the scope of the work,” she added.

The “work” was a 25-year career designing for film, variety, theater and video productions that began when Vaughan was a senior in high school in Northern California. “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz had built an ice arena across from his Santa Rosa studio where she and her sister took lessons. When Schulz decided to produce a show marking his Redwood Empire Ice Arena’s 10th anniversary featuring legendary skater Peggy Fleming, he enlisted Vaughan’s mother, a seamstress, to help with costumes, who, in turn, asked her daughter to put ideas to paper.

The show was a resounding success, and Sparky, as the cartoonist was affectionately called, wanted to continue collaborating on future shows. Vaughan had started college at UC Davis, intent on following in her architect father’s footsteps, but the costume jobs kept coming. She graduated with a degree in design, picked up a graduate degree at UCLA in theater, specializing in costume design, and continued creating outfits for ice skaters. She established herself in Los Angeles and soon was creating numbers for SeaWorld’s acrobatic show “Cirque De La Mer,” Princess cruise line’s productions and ESPN’s “Stars on Ice.”

“These were big productions, sometimes 200 costumes for each show,” she said of the elaborate clothing.

She outfitted skating legends Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton and traveled the globe designing ensembles for shows in places like Asia and South Africa. There were cowboys, Dutch girls, showgirls, animals, aliens, fish – there was nothing Vaughan couldn’t imagine and fashion. The more complex, the better.

“I remember we once used kite material to help engineer giant butterfly wings that moved as the skaters glided across the ice,” she said.

But it was the iconic Napoleonic-ensemble, a navy-style costume featuring gold ornamental epaulets, Brian Boitano wore when he captured the 1988 Olympic Men’s Figure Skating Gold Medal that cemented her reputation in the industry and landed her work on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Tasked with designing the opening ceremony apparel for the United States team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, she again found herself with a front-row seat to a major sporting event.

“That was a thrill. I remember being in the tunnel watching,” she said proudly.

That moment, too, was captured on the cover of the magazine.

Considered one of the top costumers in the country at the time, she said she relished that no two projects were alike.

“I loved that it changed all the time, there was always something new,” she said.

But in 2005, after the birth of her second child, juggling work and a growing family became a challenge, despite the flexibility Schulz afforded her.

“The cruise lines and some television shows weren’t as flexible,” she remembered, walking away from a storied career and lucrative work.

But she hasn’t stepped away altogether. She still designs costumes for The Wooden Floor, a creative youth development nonprofit in Orange County that works with young people in low-income communities through the power of dance.

“It is my fun thing to do to keep my hand in it,” she said.

And she still lends her talents to the art museum.

“I love volunteering.” 

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.

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