With a mess of fabrics, Broadway's costume shops return to work

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With a mess of fabrics, Broadway's costume shops return to work
One of many dresses for the Broadway show “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” being worked on at the Parsons-Meares Ltd. costume shop in New York, Sept. 2, 2021. As Broadway rolls out its return from the COVID-19 pandemic, costumers are again busy with the meticulous, mess-making handiwork that makes the industry sparkle onstage. Yudi Ela/The New York Times.

by Darryn King

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The workspaces at Parsons-Meares Ltd., one of New York City’s premier costume shops for Broadway shows, tend to be a spectacular confusion of satin and silk, lace and lamé, milliskin and muslin, scraps of brown paper in unique and strange shapes. Each surface seems on the verge of being inundated by leftover materials of varying hues and textures.

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

If Parsons-Meares and the dozens of other costume shops like it in the city are a bit cluttered lately, it’s a happy return to form after more than a year of inactivity. When the pandemic shuttered the theater industry in March 2020, Broadway’s dressmakers, tailors, milliners, cobblers, pleaters, beaders, embroiderers, glove-makers, fabric painters and dyers were suddenly out of work. Few performers, it turned out, needed painstakingly crafted costumes for all those shows on Zoom.

But as Broadway rolls out its return, costumers are again busy with the meticulous, mess-making handiwork that makes the industry sparkle onstage. Starting this month, the creations of Parsons-Meares will dress anew the casts 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 might turn out completely different depending on who’s interpreting it. Most designers are very particular about where the costumes get made. It’s really quite a responsibility.”

To achieve the sartorial splendor of “Moulin Rouge,” 180 artisans at 37 costume shops spent 36,000 hours translating Zuber’s drawings into 793 unique pieces. For some, part of the job was being able to track down materials in, for example, the perfect shade of red.

In other words, all that getup takes a lot of know-how and can-do.

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

And it’s more than looks. Effective stage clothes are able to withstand vigorous, sophisticated movement for eight performances a week, all year. They also have to facilitate dizzyingly fast costume changes: Think snaps that look like buttons, zippers that look like lacing, and shirts sewn onto pants. They need to be easily alterable by the show’s wardrobe department, and to stay 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 fitting room with the actor or actress,” Langman said. “We’re the ones that help them become their character. It’s kind of like being a doctor: ‘Hello. Nice to meet you. Take your clothes off.’ They are at their most vulnerable in that moment, and our job is to make them feel good about whatever it is they have to go out there and do.”

At the height of the pandemic in New York, many artisans, including Parsons and her staff, sewed and donated cloth masks and surgical gowns. Television and film work resumed later in the year, though some shops that are stubbornly loyal to the performing arts — such as Parsons-Meares Ltd. — continued to wait for Broadway’s return. (One lifeline for the shop came from Colorado Ballet, which ordered costumes for “The Nutcracker” a year in advance.)

When Broadway did come back, nearly a year and a half later, for costumers it wasn’t as simple as picking up where they left off. Numerous suppliers in the garment district of Manhattan have reduced hours or shuttered entirely, and costume shops report higher prices for fabrics and slower shipping times. Pandemic protocols have affected how the shops operate, such as how workstations are laid out and how fittings are conducted. Many workers have relocated or retired; it hasn’t been easy to find and train their successors.

So workshops are frenziedly trying to keep up with demand. Since June, Parsons-Meares has been rushing to fulfill orders for 178 pairs of pants, 120 vests and 125 dickeys for “Hamilton” alone.

For some, the crowded opening schedule and the unreasonable demands it places on costume shops feels like 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 ever, are slim, and shops have a long recovery from pandemic closures ahead. The Costume Industry Coalition calculated that its 50-plus member businesses lost $26.6 million in gross revenue last year. (That group includes Ernest Winzer Cleaners, a largely Broadway-dependent, Bronx-based facility that has been in operation since 1908.)

Janet Bloor, owner of Euroco Costumes, said: “We got one payroll protection loan. Sadly, we had no payroll to protect. We may never catch up to the massive amount of back rent we owe. It’s still possible we won’t survive the pandemic without some kind of aid.”

As the pandemic continues to loom over the return of live performances, the Broadway season remains precarious.

“Everyone’s very nervous,” Langman said. “Are people going to go back to the theater? We’ve got work for the next month or two, and then what?”

Brian Blythe, a founding member of the Costume Industry Coalition, said recovery could take years, adding, “This industry is filled with some of the most resourceful costume experts in the world, but our collective survival depends on continuing to inform our stakeholders of what it takes to do what we do.”

Some recognition might help.

At “Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes From Stage and Screen,” a 20,000-square-foot exhibition on 42nd Street, over 100 costumes for theater, television, film, cruise ships and theme parks are on view, along with regular artisan demonstrations such as rhinestone application and 3D printing.

Given museum treatment, the exhibition’s costumes can finally be appreciated up close as the remarkable, wearable sculptures they are: the Tudor-meets-Rihanna outfits of Henry VIII’s wives from “Six,” bedazzled with 18,810 studs; the elaborate roping and beading of corsets for “The Lion King”; Miodrag Guberinic’s Medusa for Heartbeat Opera, with its laser-cut snake vertebrae; the intricate beadwork for “Aladdin,” which occupied beader Polly Kinney every day for nearly six months. Even the gravity-defying undergarments worn by performers of “Wicked,” by foundationwear specialist and Bra Tenders owner Lori Kaplan, get a shoutout.

While “Showstoppers” is letting theater lovers see the art of Broadway costuming in a new way, members of the Costume Industry Coalition hope Broadway producers might be similarly enlightened.

“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. There needs to be a rethink at the highest levels as to what’s regarded a living wage, and what we can ask for, in order to make this work.”

Langman sees sexism in the treatment of her field, including when it comes to pay, with women making up 70% of its workforce, according to the coalition.

“We’ve always been looked at as ‘the women,’ because the majority of our industry is women, or gay men,” she said. “That’s just the nature of our business. We’ve never wielded as much power or been given as much respect compared to the guys in the scenic department who can swing a hammer.”

There is a wider hope that young people will be drawn to the industry. Many leading costumers are approaching retirement age, and the industry stands to benefit from the fresh eyes of young people who might never have realized that these careers exist.

“It would be great for them to know that this is an option,” Langman said. “For kids to know this is something that you can do with your life that’s creative and meaningful.”

That kind of advocacy is starting to feel like a second job, Langman said, but a necessary one.

“By their nature, costumers prefer to stay backstage, supporting the people onstage,” she added. “But we’ve been forced to push our faces forward — to let everyone know that we’re here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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