Velvet, organza and vipers: stage costumes dazzle

Here’s what you can’t see from the back mezzanine of a theater: the flocked velvet, the ruby-like rhinestones, the layered fabrics that ...


Here’s what you can’t see from the back mezzanine of a theater: the flocked velvet, the ruby-like rhinestones, the layered fabrics that form a lush rosette atop each dance pump. This is the costume of the Red Death from the “Masquerade” number in “The Phantom of the Opera”. Carnival of flocked velvet and gold braid, it integrates art and craftsmanship, glamor and kitsch, fantasy and hand-sewn reality.

The Red Death awaits you at the lower level of ” Shows ! Spectacular costumes for stage and screen ”, an ephemeral exhibition for the benefit of the new Costume Industry Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 small businesses and independent artisans based in New York City.

On Broadway, even in the best seats, an orchestra pit separates you from the finery. To “Showstoppers! , Which runs through September 26 at a former Modell branch in Times Square, you can stand close enough to make out the individual threads.

When theaters turned dark last year due to the pandemic, costume makers also had to go out of business. Designers are the visible faces of this industry – they are the ones who receive the Tony Awards, but not during the aired portions of the ceremony. But while they imagine the costumes, it’s the makers – the tailors and dressmakers and embroiderers and weavers and beaders and pleaters and painters and milliners and glovemakers and shoemakers – who actually build them.

“We create the moving work of art in three dimensions,” said Brian Blythe, one of the exhibition’s organizers. Most of the pieces are sewing items, built on the bodies of individual artists and removed when those actors leave a show.

” Shows ! Features over 100 costumes, along with a handful of tools used to make them, such as headgear blocks and a 19th century crewel machine from embroiderers Penn & Fletcher.

The exhibit was put on in three and a half months, and its lighting, sound and design (from Thinc Design) were provided at cost or free of charge. So it inevitably seems ad hoc. Broadway and opera shows showcase their custom-shod feet; the cinema, television, theme park and dance parts are set back. The selection reflects less of a vision of dedication, and more of what could be begged, borrowed, or vividly replicated.

But what is more theatrical than a show philosophy?

Not all clothes benefit from a thorough study. Some need the alchemy of star power and stage lighting to shine. Yet each bears witness to the men and women (mostly women), who patiently tied each ribbon and rhinestone. A handful of these artisans will be on site, exercising their starred trades during opening hours. Here are 10 highlights from the show.

“The Cher Show” divided the life of its heroine between three actresses, called in the biomusical Babe, Star and Lady. The exhibit features the costumes of all three in the “If I Could Turn Back Time” issue, a form-fitting triptych of velvet, rhinestones and boots. When Cher came to see the Broadway show, she reminded designer Bob Mackie that she hadn’t really worn the glamorous bat wings that crown the show. “You would have if I had drawn them,” he told her.

Just steps away, collect replicas of outfits from “Six,” a pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII that was originally slated to open on Broadway’s closing day. Tudor-inspired mini dresses are crafted from plastic, vinyl and the occasional Swarovski crystal. They evoke the 16th century – the lattice patterns, the corsetry – but also contemporary stars such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande. Thousands of metallic nails, some so sharp they could cut you, adorn the outfits. Each has a personalized mic case.

One of the displays in the exhibit pays homage to Disney’s dominance of Broadway. (“Frozen” has announced its closure during the pandemic, but “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” will reopen soon.) Up close, the “Aladdin” costumes offer amazing subtleties, like beaded birds and winding flowering vines. from top to bottom Aladdin’s turquoise dress. The delicate embroidery on Jasmine’s pink skirts can be hard to discern without a close look, but see how it contrasts with the unabashed opulence of her top.

Perhaps the most memorable element of “The Lion King” is its life-size animal heads, designed by director Julie Taymor and mask and puppet designer Michael Curry. (The Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired two for its theater and performance collection.) But “Showstopper! Shows the complexity of more subtle costumes. Take the prairie corset: strands of rope form a skirt underneath. Above it, strips of fabric are hand woven into more cord to create a bodice that is both durable and delicate.

Diamonds are forever. Ostrich feather boas are not. In the “Moulin Rouge” Sparkling Diamond look! The Musical, ”courtesan Satine is perched in a swing in a strapless dress, top hat, high heeled boots and a collar that could strain the cervical vertebrae. There are rhinestone rhinestones in a firework pattern on the heart-shaped bodice, individual gemstones stitched to the bottom. Even the heels of the boots shine. A nod to Satine’s vulnerability, the skirt – made of ostrich feathers and mylar tinsel – softens the diamond hardness of her look.

During the “One Short Day” issue of “Wicked,” school-aged witches Glinda and Elphaba arrive in the Emerald City to see the wizard. The verdant suit of a single citywoman features 900 yards of ombre-dyed organza ribbon. (This gives the effect of an ordinary day dress filled with lettuce.) The skirt of the dress has a folded pleat, and if you look below you’ll find five layers of petticoat, three of which are meticulously embroidered, just in case where the performer lifts his dancing shoe.

When Paul Tazewell designed the costumes for “Hamilton,” the creator and star of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, told him that Hamilton’s costume should be green. Not just any green, but the color of silver. (Damage the costume assistant who must have visited the city’s fabric stores, holding a $ 10 bill.) The final outfit is ultimately more luxurious than money, and it also holds other surprises: like lace. feminine with each cascade collar that encircles the neck.

Some of the gloves from Wing + Weft, the latest glove maker in the garment district, have built-in claws. Others are sequined, feathered, fringed, beaded, buttoned, gathered and beaded. The studio designs for theater, film and television and (along with its immediate predecessor, Lacrasia Gloves) has also gloved a dozen first ladies. But many of the most splendid designs seen here are for drag and burlesque – gloves designed to be worn and then finger-by-finger removed with flirtation.

The ghost’s red death outfit is so heavy that it’s surprising it didn’t knock the actors down the stairs in “Masquerade.” There is the feathered rider’s hat, skull mask, pearls, rubies, buttons, trims and tassels on the sofa that collects the stomacher, a Renaissance decorated panel. Turn your back on these outfits and you’ll find designs from another archetypal scene – Christine’s white nightgown and the ghost’s black cloak from “The Music of the Night”.

Take a look at Medusa and you’ll turn to stone. This will not happen to “Showstoppers!” But when you see this mannequin dressed in the Medusa costume from Heartbeat Opera’s “Dragus Maximus”, a weird version of Homeric myths, you might stop cold. The dress is adorned with vipers, each 3D printed at the request of designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Compared to the other looks featured, it has a less artisanal approach, but it’s no less complex or exciting. And that hints at the future of manufacturing.

Showstoppers! Spectacular stage and screen costumes
Until September 26 at 234 West 42nd Street; showstoppersnyc.com.

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