The costumer for ACT's swanky "The Women" is Bainbridge Island-reared David Zinn, in demand at theaters nationwide.

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Upstairs at ACT Theatre is a makeshift closet a modern female clotheshorse would die for.

And rummaging through it is David Zinn, a slightly scruffy, bearded guy in Levis and jean jacket who looks more like a trucker than a designer of chic women’s attire.

Zinn pulls out a summery, blue-and-white striped frock and notes that in the 1930s this would be called a “day dress.” He points to a swanky little suit with a cobalt blue tailored jacket as something a Park Avenue gal would wear out to lunch.

Then, the piece de resistance: a slinky turquoise satin evening dress, artfully draped and utterly glamorous. Joan Crawford, please! We need you for a costume fitting!

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But no, it’s not that fabled Hollywood star this gown was made for. It is Jennifer Lyon, an actress playing Crystal Allen in ACT Theatre’s production of Clare Boothe Luce’s catty comedy “The Women” — the same shameless hussy Crawford enacted in George Cukor’s movie of “The Women.”

Luce’s 1936 Broadway satire of Manhattan trophy wives, fighting to keep their men (or score a hefty divorce settlement if they can’t), is not only about clothes, dearie.

But just as its fashionable characters wouldn’t dream of going out the door in any old shmata, director Warner Shook knew he had to have a very fashion-savvy costumer for his ACT staging of “The Women.”

No surprise then that he tagged Zinn for the job — because, Shook declares, “David is smart and he has wonderful taste and he makes me laugh.”

The genial, industrious Zinn, a Seattle-area native, is clearly up to the challenge.

Growing up on Bainbridge Island, the son of parents who worked for Lockheed and the local school district, he was a “classic theater nerd” who as a kid doing youth shows was more drawn to designing productions (“you don’t have to call any attention to yourself”) than acting in them.

Since he headed off to study theatrical design at New York University after high school, Zinn has been based in New York City. But he has returned here often to visit family and work at Intiman Theatre (where Shook was artistic director during the 1990s), at Empty Space Theatre and other local playhouses.

Now he’s in high demand elsewhere too, creating the costumes (and/or sets) for major shows at regional theaters and opera companies from Los Angeles to Chicago to Boston.

His credits range from work on highly experimental shows to costuming the current kitschy Broadway hit “Xanadu.”

But “The Women” is a special project, Zinn notes over coffee. “The survival of ACT is such a great success story,” he says. “And I grew up in Seattle theater in the 1980s, so it’s great to work with these performers” — such veteran thesps in the all-female cast as Elizabeth Huddle, Suzanne Bouchard and Marianne Owen.

Zinn has spent a year, working off and on, on the production — from his early chats with Shook (who spent four years helping ACT pull together the expensive, big-cast venture), through preliminary sketches and a workshop staging.

The designer’s task? Create scores of outfits for 16 actresses, from an era “when women wore hats and gloves and high heels, everywhere.”

So chi-chi is the social orbit of Mary Haines (the play’s lead character, portrayed at ACT by Bouchard), that a lengthy fashion show scene was added to Cukor’s famed 1939 film of “The Women” — all duds designed by top Hollywood costumer Adrian.

Though a 2002 Broadway revival of “The Women” was generally lackluster, it had divine outfits whipped up by leading couturier Isaac Mizrahi.

A new film of “The Women,” shooting now with an all-star cast headed by Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Bette Midler, should also be plenty well-garbed.

But Zinn stresses his goal is what it’s been for every show he’s done, for the folksy “The Cider House Rules” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, to the outrageously punky “Henry IV, Part One” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival: to serve the needs of the play and the director’s concept.

For “The Women,” that’s translated into clothes 1930s women of a certain class (and their maids, masseuses and shop clerks) would actually wear.

“These are Upper East Side ladies who are obsessed with their clothes,” Zinn explains. “I didn’t want everything to be super-costumey. You have to believe Mary, who is super classy and tasteful, can be friends with these other people. I wanted the women to wear the clothes, not the clothes to wear them.”

“These ladies are rich and colorful, but they’re not garish,” agrees Shook. “The way women could compete in 1936, in a man’s world, was by getting men’s attention. Dressing well was a way to do that.”

In his research of 1930s apparel, now in style again at vintage shops everywhere, Zinn noted how often pants and dresses were high-waisted. “I raised the waists on everything,” he says. “It makes your legs look about 900 times longer.”

He also put the actresses in “foundation garments” that help create the sleek, “flowy” effect he’s after. “Most women suffered wearing heavy-duty girdles back then. Today they suffer by going to the gym all the time.”

The character most challenging to dress was Crystal Allen, the working-class climber who steals away Mary’s husband. “It was fun to figure out her story,” muses Zinn. “She’s in the play so little, and in one scene she’s just naked in a bubble bath. But her part is very impactful.”

He also wanted the costumes to build up dramatically, along with the script, to the play’s climactic scene: a gathering in a fancy nightclub, where rivalries erupt into all-out war in the “powder room.”

“You need somewhere to go for the final scenes,” Zinn explains. “If everything the actors wear is show-stopping, you’d just be fatigued.”

Asked about his own fashion sense, Zinn laughs. “I just throw stuff on,” he reports. “You should see me in the summer, when I truly look like a homeless person.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com