With a mess of fabrics, Broadway costume shops are going back to work

The workspaces of Parsons-Meares Ltd., one of New York’s leading costume stores for Broadway shows, tend to be a dramatic confusion of s...


The workspaces of Parsons-Meares Ltd., one of New York’s leading costume stores for Broadway shows, tend to be a dramatic confusion of satin and silk, lace and lamé, milliskin and muslin, pieces of brown paper with unique and strange shapes. . Each surface appears to be on the verge of being inundated with the remains of materials of varying hues and textures.

“It’s kind of a big mess, because work creates mess,” said Sally Ann Parsons, the shop owner and the only costume designer to receive a Tony Award. “But I happen to find the mess interesting.”

If Parsons-Meares and the dozens of other costume stores like this one in the city have been a bit crowded lately, it’s a happy comeback after more than a year of inactivity. When the pandemic shut down the theater industry in March 2020, dressmakers, tailors, milliners, shoemakers, pleaters, beaders, embroiderers, glove makers, fabric painters and dyers were suddenly out of work. As it turned out, few performers needed painstakingly made costumes for all of these shows on Zoom.

But as Broadway makes its comeback, patrons are once again occupied with the meticulous and messy manual work that makes the industry shine on stage. From this month, the creations of Parsons-Meares will once again dress the castings of shows including “The Lion King”, “Hadestown” and “Moulin Rouge!” The Musical ”, as well as productions of“ Hamilton ”across the country.

“Costume shops are extremely important,” said Catherine Zuber, who designed costumes for “Moulin Rouge”. “A costume can turn out completely different depending on who performs it. Most designers are very particular about where the costumes are made. It really is quite a responsibility.

To achieve the sartorial splendor of the “Moulin Rouge”, 180 artisans from 37 costume shops spent 36,000 hours translating Zuber’s designs into 793 unique pieces. For some, part of the job was to find materials in, say, the perfect shade of red.

In other words, all of this training takes a lot of skill and know-how.

“When you need a costume for ‘Hamilton’,” said Donna Langman, whose shop dresses the older Schuyler sisters in this show, “you can’t just run out and buy it in the 18th-century clothing store. down the street. “

And it’s more than just a look. Effective stage clothing is able to withstand vigorous and sophisticated movement for eight performances a week, year round. They also have to make it easy to make amazingly quick costume changes: think snaps that look like buttons, zippers that look like lacings, and shirts sewn onto pants. They should be easily changed by the show’s wardrobe service and remain fresh without daily dry cleaning.

In a way, costume shops also help coax actors into their roles. “There is a magic that happens in the dressing room with the actor or actress,” Langman said. “We are the ones who help them become their characters. It’s a bit like being a doctor: “Hello, nice to meet you. Take off your clothes.’ They are the most vulnerable at this time, and our job is to make them feel good about whatever they have to do. “

At the height of the pandemic in New York City, many artisans, including Parsons and his staff, sewed and donated cloth masks and surgical gowns. Television and film work resumed later in the year, although some stores stubbornly loyal to the performing arts – such as Parsons-Meares Ltd. – continued to wait for the return of Broadway. (A lifeline for the boutique came from the Colorado Ballet, which ordered costumes for “The Nutcracker” a year in advance.)

When Broadway returned, almost a year and a half later, for customers, it wasn’t as easy as picking up where they left off. Many vendors in Manhattan’s Garment District have reduced their hours or closed completely, and costume stores are reporting higher prices for fabrics and slower shipping times. Pandemic protocols have affected the way stores operate, such as the way workstations are set up and the way fittings are done. Many workers have moved or retired; it was not easy to find and train their successors.

The workshops are therefore frantically trying to meet demand. Since June, Parsons-Meares has rushed to honor orders for 178 pairs of pants, 120 vests and 125 dickies for the “Hamilton” alone.

To some, the busy opening schedule and unreasonable demands it places on costume stores seem to be the latest example of the indifference with which they are treated by Broadway producers. “We’ve always been the lowest on the totem pole,” Langman said.

Profit margins, as always, are slim, and stores are long recovering from upcoming pandemic closures. The Costume Industry Coalition has calculated that its 50+ member companies lost $ 26.6 million in gross revenue last year. (This group includes Ernest Winzer Cleaners, the facility based largely on Broadway and based in the Bronx and operating since 1908.)

Janet Bloor, owner of Euroco Costumes, said: “We got a payroll protection loan. Unfortunately, we had no payroll to protect. We may never be able to make up for the enormous amount of rent arrears that we owe. It is always possible that we will not survive the pandemic without some help. “

As the pandemic continues to loom over the return of live entertainment, the Broadway season remains precarious. “Everyone is very nervous,” Langman said. “Are people going to go back to the theater? We have work for the next month or two, and then what?

Brian Blythe, founding member of the Costume Industry Coalition, said the recovery could take years, adding, “This industry is filled with some of the world’s most ingenious costume experts, but our collective survival depends on the continuation of the industry. ‘informing our parties what it takes to do what we do.

Some recognition might help.

TO “Showstoppers! Spectacular stage and screen costumes», A 20,000 square foot exhibit on 42nd Street, over 100 costumes for theater, television, film, cruise ships and theme parks are presented, as well as regular craft demonstrations such as the application of rhinestones and 3D printing.

With a museum treatment, the costumes in the exhibition can finally be appreciated up close as the remarkable and wearable sculptures that they are: the Tudor-meets-Rihanna outfits of the wives of Henry VIII of “Six”, dazzled by 18,810 nails; the elaborate stringing and beading of the corsets for “The Lion King”; Medusa for Heartbeat Opera by Miodrag Guberinic, with its laser-cut serpent vertebrae; the intricate beadwork for “Aladdin,” which occupied the Polly Kinney bead every day for nearly six months. Even the gravity-defying underwear worn by “Wicked” performers, basic wear specialist and Bra Tenders owner Lori Kaplan, gets a scream.

While “Showstoppers” allows theatergoers to see the art of Broadway costume in a new way, members of the Costume Industry Coalition hope Broadway producers may be enlightened as well.

“Some people seem to think these are things your mom can sew at home,” said Sarah Timberlake, owner of Timberlake Studios. “And, because of that, it doesn’t have to be that expensive. We need to rethink at the highest level what is considered a living wage and what we can ask for, in order to make it work.

Langman sees sexism in the treatment of his field, including pay, with women making up 70% of his workforce, according to the coalition. “We have always been considered ‘women’ because the majority of our industry is made up of gay women or men,” she said. “It’s just the nature of our business. We’ve never wielded so much power or been given so much respect as the guys in the stage department who can hit a hammer.

There is a broader hope that young people will be attracted to the industry. Many top clients are approaching retirement age, and the industry should benefit from the fresh eyes of young people who may never have realized these careers exist. “It would be great for them to know that this is an option,” Langman said. “To let the kids know that this is something you can do with your life that is creative and meaningful. “

This kind of advocacy is starting to look like a second job, Langman said, but a necessary job. “By nature, clients prefer to stay behind the scenes, supporting people on stage,” she added. “But we had to push our faces forward – so everyone would know we’re here.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: With a mess of fabrics, Broadway costume shops are going back to work
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