Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes From Stage and Screen- Wonderful!

Proceeds benefit the Costume Industry Coalition Recovery Fund advocating for the survival of New York City’s costume industry.                                                          

“Without us they’d all be naked!” flashes across the screen during this exhibition’s teaser video. While perhaps stretching the point, it’s impossible to recall New York theater experiences without the apt, imaginative, sometimes extraordinary couture costumes that enhance a production. On stage wardrobe can place a character’s era, location, economic status, attitude and taste.

The Phantom of the Opera

Some costumes have to move with dancers. Some are designed to morph like Cinderella’s transformation before our eyes or be stripped off for quick change behind the scenes. Corsets in Moulin Rouge appear to tie in the back like classic versions, but actually utilize hidden zippers to slip off with ease. Other wardrobe hides an actor’s body. Euroco Costumes Inc., as we see, will transfigure Rob McClure into Mrs. Doubtfire with well placed padding.

Frozen’s Olaf (snowman) and Kristoff (the reindeer) are essentially inhabited puppets. Actors must be able to breathe and see as well as move. These characters are not included, but many in a display from American Ballet Theatre’s “Whipped Cream” are developed on the same premise. Randy Carfagno, “The Sultan of Silly,” brought those we view to life. (Designer Mark Ryden) 

Whipped Cream (American Ballet Theatre)

Though designers are identified, Showstoppers! salutes craftspeople toiling behind the scenes. Four stations – a dressmaking/tailoring section, a millinery section, a crafting section, and an embroidery section – are intermittently manned by artisans. You can ask questions while watching something being made, a unique and fascinating opportunity for sewers and appreciators alike. From Wednesday August 11, the CIC hopes to have a schedule posted on the Showstoppers! website listing when artisans will be active in their spaces.

Wicked

The amount of expertise, manpower and time it takes to realize an original sketch can be surprising. For Wicked, Elphaba’s (the so-called Wicked Witch) skirt took about 40 yards of fabric. “We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again to make it feel like an organic material which incorporates many different colors. It takes 40-60 hours for one person to stitch them together.” (From an interview with Designer Susan Hilferty by Erin Blasco, National Museum of American History.)

Moulin Rouge

One gown for Moulin Rouge’s heroine Satine is decorated with thousands of hand-placed crystals. (Sally Ann Parsons of Parsons-Meares LTD makers.) According to The Hollywood Reporter, four million euros (approximately $4,457,628) was spent on costumes for the current production. On video, the musical’s designer, Catherine Zuber, says, “The time it takes for a costume is usually the time there is.”

For the musical Aladdin, 1,125 different fabrics and 712 types of beading were used. Swarovski crystals feature in every outfit, with 1,428 crystals on each pair of trousers in “Friend Like Me!” (Designer Gregg Barnes.) It took specialist Polly Kinney and her associates ten hours a day for five months to bead just one of the costumes. All this doesn’t included ornate accessories. There are 80 turbans in the Prince Ali parade number.

Aladdin

At the theater, we see all this hard work at a distance. One might assume corners would be cut. Though this is occasionally true, often for practical reasons like the weight of a garment, care of construction is arresting. Lean in to Hamilton mannequins to see the exacting, bound buttonholes on Thomas Jefferson’s coat (Tova Morino, Artur, & Tailors Ltd.)

The CIC Pattern Project (on ETSY) offers a pattern (scan with your phone or go to web site) that will let you create your own Hamilton-inspired Spencer jacket from a design by Tony Award Winner Paul Tazewell. (A short jacket worn by both men and women that ended at the waistline for men and just under the bosom for women.) Cost $22. Pattern for a cocktail dress from Mrs. Maisel will be offered soon.

Hamilton

Look at the elaborate shoes made for characters from Broadway’s longest running show, The Phantom of the Opera. Designer Maria Björnson’s 280 costumes (necessitating 14 dressers) have been recreated by successive shops for over 30 years. (The designer is deceased.)

Fabrics can be sumptuous, materials unexpected. The inimitable Julie Taymor’s designs for The Lion King achieve a different fabulosity up close. Inspired by African and Asian (Bunraku) culture as well as the animated film, 300 puppets were built by Tim Lucas and Mike Grimm for the show. Taymor dictated the use of shells, grass, bamboo, feathers, beads, rope, quilted suede, and hand painting to Barbara Matera LTD, then Donna Langman Costumes LLC.  Puppet heads (we don’t see the mechanical aspect) loom above mannequins.

The Lion King- Left photo by Rebecca J. Michelson

Costumes for the upcoming SIX clothe the wives of Henry VIII in a combination of Tudor, pop rock, and Las Vegas influences with knife-like pleats, corset tops, faux fur, chains, and shimmering vinyl layers. John Kristiansen Costume Shop hand-placed 18,000 studs on the half dozen mini dresses exhibited. (Designer Gabriella Slade.) At the other end of the period spectrum, Helen Uffner’s Vintage Clothing Collection (there are samples) includes over 50,000 pieces from the 1800s through the 1980s. The gigantic costume rental warehouse in Long Island City  rented 155 dresses for the recent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and lots of men’s suits.

SIX- photo by Rebecca J. Michelson

We see period wardrobe from television’s Dickinson for which pleat and embroidery experts were tapped (Designer John Dunn has said he employed period-accurate techniques) and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, amazingly light , flexible armor (for Saturday Night Live) by Costume Armour Inc. using Vacuform-a process that molds heated sheets of plastic and cruise showgirl attire to rival The Folies Bergère.

Dickinson

Also theater contributions from, in part, Chicago (with different looks by William Ivy Long for  Bebe Neuwirth, Karen Ziemba, and popstar Brandy as Roxie Hart), Come From Away, The Cher Show, Side Show, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and, from the dance world, American Ballet Theatre, the Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City Ballet; also, Opera, Disney World, Norwegian Cruise Line, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus…

Give a moment of thought to maintaining these costumes, to re-sewing beads or sequins, resizing with cast changes, replacing that which has worn or torn, and regular cleaning – demanding responsibilities paramount to every production. According to Actor’s Equity, any costume piece that touches an actor’s skin must be washed every day. The 174 costumes in Phantom of the Opera are not machine washable. These are handled on a rotating, twice-weekly dry cleaning schedule.  For 100 years, Winsor Cleaners has been Dry Cleaner to Broadway. Original costumes often go on tour, to costume rental companies, and the TDF Costume Collection.

Thinc Design (thincdesign.com) donated its invention, skill and time to mount the exhibit featuring not only eye-catching costumes, but explanatory video, signage, inspiration boards featuring sketches, fabric and trim, and accessories. Helmed by Tom Hennes, this outstanding show was put together in only three months!

Brian Blythe of John Kristiansen New York, Inc. was a director, choreographer, and non-profit theater administrator before joining life partner, Kristiansen, in his business. It was Blythe’s idea for the exhibition that set the wheels rolling. Most costume shops, he tells me, have been shut down during the pandemic. Several have had to give up their space until things revive. His is up to  a hopeful 60 percent, but things are tight. “The Vintage Collection like so many costume and prop rental places in the city — is about to be pushed out of her space after just 2 1/2 years. …Her current landlord said she has to get out by September, so a developer can build LIC’s tallest residential high-rise.” Raquel Laneri, The New York Post.

Where does a young person with interest in design and actually making costumes go to learn? At this point, colleges with specialty programs are best initial bets. Blythe, however, acknowledges than not everyone can afford higher learning and that many artisans learned their skills from family. His shop employs immigrants speaking five languages. One day perhaps there will be apprenticeship programs.

Privately raised funds and sponsors made Showstoppers! possible with tax-deductible donations going to The Artisans Guild of America. Penn & Fletcher Embroidery Designers and Artisans has recently set up a grant program for CIC members. Where, one wonders, is New York City when it comes to supporting the theater community that contributes enormously to its life blood?!

An entertaining and illuminating show for adults and young people (tweens up), women and men, professionals and civilians. It’s great fun to see behind the curtain and, as Blythe says, “out the door, down the block, and around the corner” (where things are actually made).

Showstoppers! will run for a limited eight-week engagement through September 26, 2021 at 234 West 42nd Street. Tickets are on sale now and are available at ShowstoppersNYC.com.

Opening Photo Thinc Inc., Two photos by Rebecca J. Michelson, all others Alix Cohen

Underpinnings for Dickinson and Mrs. Doubtfire

Through Dori Berenstein, CIC partner Broadway Podcast Network has launched Into Costume hosted by costume designer, Devario D. Simmons. The podcast shines the spotlight on the costume creation process that helps complete a performer’s transformation with each show featuring a designer, maker, and performer.

With the help of Susan Lee, Broadway Education Alliance and WPBS-TV, a PBS Learning Media contributor, are developing a five-episode digital workshop to be filmed at Showstoppers! Entitled AT THIS STAGE, each episode will feature an artist demonstrating their skill working on a replica or a show-stopping costume. The programs will be streamed to classrooms, but Blythe hopes that PBS will pick them up for national, public consumption.

The Costume Industry Coalition (CIC) was launched in 2020 to advocate for the survival of New York City’s custom costume industry. CIC Members include 56 small, unique, independent businesses and artisans in and around New York City that create, supply, and care for costumes for every facet of entertainment. According to The Daily News, the organization lost $26 million in revenue last year. 

About Alix Cohen (1151 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.