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A Close-Up On Costumes

Enter the Showstoppers! exhibit, and meet the costumiers of New York City


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Storm Trooper Costume on Display from Disney California Adventure - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson
Frozen Costumes at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Costumes on display at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

The shop windows of New York City’s Garment District are a sumptuous feast for the imagination. Beyond the glass, a dense jungle of color buzzes in the high-ceilinged canopies that flank narrow walkways, overflowing with texture; thread, ribbons, feathers, buttons, paints, trims, rhinestones, crystals, and towering rolls of sensuous fabrics stretch into oblivion. Dotted sporadically between 34th and 41st Street, these quirky stores burst with possibility; however, a new style of shop front is casting dark shadows across this historic district’s aesthetic. Wooden boards, dark blinds, and worn silver shutters have replaced many vibrant displays, serving as a relentless reminder that in many instances, these bright and brilliant businesses are gone for good.

COVID-19 ravaged New York’s costume industry. The ecosystem is built on small businesses, and when Broadway closed abruptly in March 2020, this cottage industry lost $26.6 million in gross revenue that year. Workers could rarely adapt their roles to fit a work from home model, and numerous shops closed permanently, removing familiar suppliers from the map. Experts with years of experience have said goodbye to their vocations, taking precious practical knowledge with them. Without those face-to-face interactions in the work room, demonstrating techniques and passing intelligence along, we may be losing more than we realize.

However, some businesses have managed to stay afloat, due in large part to the tireless efforts of the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC). The CIC was established in response to the pandemic and is composed of 55 NYC-based businesses and artisans who create, supply, and care for costumes on stage and screen. Their aim is to protect and uplift businesses that became vulnerable during the pandemic by purchasing materials from local vendors, employing skilled professionals, and boosting the city’s economy.

The CIC is also responsible for NYC’s unmissable new pop-up on West 42nd street. “Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes From Stage and Screen” allows visitors a rare, in-depth look at the expertise of New York’s finest costumiers, a place to admire every stitch, strand, and sequin up close. It is a celebration and acknowledgement of the debt that onstage majesty owes to offstage expertise, and all proceeds from the exhibition raise money for the CIC Recovery Fund, which supports and advocates for small businesses in need. In collaboration with Thinc design and the Artisans Guild of America, the CIC created an immersive labyrinth of art; jaw-dropping costumes are interwoven with truly enlightening educational content, bringing this intricate and often underappreciated work to our attention.

Inside, we learn about the process from design to build, and the delicate marriage between individual labor and consistent, communicative teamwork. The lifeblood of a “look” appears to flow through a show’s costume bible; this binder is an essential meeting point for the team, and is filled over time with performer’s measurements, sketches, fabric samples (alongside source locations & pricing), fitting photographs, and more. Working from sketches, the makers spend hours selecting materials, establishing the correct cut for performers, deciding on appropriate embellishments, and developing a flawless fit that is comfortable, durable, and well-suited to the story. It truly does take a village to perfect these looks. Milliners, seamstresses, cobblers, bead experts, cleaners, pattern makers, pleaters, tailors, painters, and many more are involved. Not to mention that, for most shows on Broadway, every actor in the company will change outfits at least twice before the final curtain drops.

Heartbeat Opera's Dragus Maximus Costume on Display at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

Nestled amongst the exhibition’s magnificent displays, a handful of talented craftspeople are busy creating masterpieces, allowing us a front row seat to their working day. While there, I stumbled upon Camilla Chuvarsky, a milliner at the Lynne Mackey Studio, who was constructing a bridal veil for Hamilton’s Eliza. She explained that the matrimonial headpiece takes around 40 hours to complete and that, while the item may not be worn for long, it adds integral texture to our visual storyboard. Every little detail is a piece of the puzzle; in this case, a sweet, subtle bouquet of flowers (some vintage, some hand-made) in shades of pink, blue and cream cover the “band” of her veil, pairing perfectly with her dress and adding contextual layers to her story without distracting the eye.

Some of the most time-consuming tasks lie in the tiniest of flourishes. Closely following designer Gabriella Slade’s sketches, the makers at John Kristiansen hand-placed over 18,810 studs onto costumes for the queens of Six The Musical, allowing the regal 16th century shapes to take on a sharp, contemporary edge. Polly Kinney, the Theatrical Beader for Aladdin, worked 10 hours a day for five months to complete the beading on Aladdin’s pieces. The beads themselves travelled many miles to reach Broadway, hailing from Austria, India, China, Japan, and the Czech Republic.