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A Close-Up On Costumes

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



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


Photography by Rebecca J Michelson

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.

Frozen Costumes at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

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.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Costumes on display at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

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.

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.

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

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.

The devil appears to be in the details, and not only with smaller items of clothing. Large scale pieces must be afforded the same level of attention, and are often more easily seen and scrutinized.. In The Lion King, large animal masks are worn above the face so as not to obscure the actors, but they must also be intensely expressive on their own to make an impression on the back row of the mezzanine. Up close, the mask for Scar is a fascinating study in contours. The makers chisel the lightweight material into a sly, cold expression, with hollows and cuts that give him a gaunt and menacing air. The features are deliberately asymmetrical, making him seem unbalanced, and his angular eyebrows steadily mock us. These subtle touches of personality tell the audience in no uncertain terms that this feline is not to be trusted, and all before he has even warned us to “Be Prepared.”

The Lion King Costumes on Display at Showstoppers - Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

Another major consideration for both maker and designer is the physical demands of a show. The garments may need to be danced in, handled roughly, lit up, used as props, or stripped off for rapid quick-changes backstage. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the female ensemble is almost in perpetual movement; therefore, their corsets were constructed using spandex panels to allow for flexibility while retaining the period aesthetic. When designing costumes for TV and Film, duplicates of many outfits must be made for the actors’ stunt double, and may require extra room or alternative tailoring to accommodate protective gear and padding. These costumes must stand up against deterioration and weathering, not to mention having to survive the actors themselves.

We frequently credit writers, directors, musicians, and performers for the way that theatre makes us feel, but I believe equal kudos is owed to the artists that clothe our beloved characters. Any actor will tell you that those first rehearsals in costume are extraordinary; clothes have immense power and presence, and can elevate a performance from moving to mesmeric. To the audience, they are the first impression we have of a person. For an actor, it can mean the donning of armor, or stripping away of inhibition. Clothes lead our perspective in more ways than we realize and when handled expertly, they not only embellish the exterior shell, they inform the interior life.


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