The workspaces at Parsons-Meares Ltd., one of New York City’s premier costume stores for Broadway shows, tend to be a gorgeous medley of brown scraps of satin and silk, lace and lame, milliskin and muslin, unique and oddly shaped. . Every surface seems on the verge of being flooded with leftover materials of varying colors and textures.
“It’s a bit of a mess, because business is messy,” said Sally Ann Parsons, the shop owner and the only costume maker to win a Tony Award. “But I find the confusion interesting.”
If Parsons-Meares and dozens of other costume shops like this one in town have been a bit of a mess lately, it’s a happy return after being inactive for over a year. When the pandemic shuttered the theater industry in March 2020, tailors, dressmakers, hairdressers, shoemakers, pleaters, beaders, embroiderers, glovemakers, fabric dyers, and dyers on Broadway were suddenly out of work. It turns out that few artists need elaborate costumes for all these shows on Zoom.
But as Broadway returns, clients re-engage on stage with the meticulous, messy crafts that shine the industry. Starting this month, Parsons-Meares’ creations “The Lion King”, “Hadestown” and “Moulin Rouge! “The Musical” as well as “Hamilton” productions across the country.
“Costume stores are extremely important,” said Catherine Zuber, who designed the costumes for “Moulin Rouge.” “A costume can look completely different depending on who interprets it. Most designers are very particular about where the costumes are made. This is a really big responsibility.”
To achieve the tailoring splendor of “Moulin Rouge,” 180 artisans in 37 costume shops spent 36,000 hours translating Zuber’s drawings into 793 unique pieces. For some, part of the job was keeping track of the perfect shade of red, for example.
In other words, all these preparations require a lot of knowledge and skill.
“When you need a costume for ‘Hamilton,’ you can’t just run around and buy it at the 18th century clothing store down the street,” said Donna Langman, who dressed the big Schuyler sisters for the shop at that show.
And more than just looks. Effective stage outfits can withstand powerful, sophisticated movement for eight performances a week all year long. They also have to facilitate costume changes at a dizzying pace: Think button-like snaps, zippers that look like laces, and shirts sewn into pants. They should be easily replaced by the show’s wardrobe department and stay fresh without the need for daily dry cleaning.
In a way, costume shops also help entice actors into their roles. “There’s 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 like being a doctor: ‘Hello, nice to meet you. Take off your clothes.’ They’re at their most vulnerable right now, and it’s our job to go out and make them feel good about everything they have to do.”
At the height of the pandemic in New York, many artisans, including Parsons and his staff, sewed and donated cloth masks and surgical gowns. Parsons-Meares Ltd. Work in television and film resumed later in the year, although some shops stubbornly devoted to the performing arts, such as Broadway, continued to await its return. (A lifeline for the shop came from Colorado Ballet, who had ordered costumes for “The Nutcracker” a year in advance.)
When Broadway returned nearly a year and a half later, it wasn’t as easy for clients to pick up where it left off. Numerous suppliers in Manhattan’s apparel district have reduced or closed their hours of operation, and costume stores are reporting higher prices and slower shipping times for fabrics. Pandemic protocols have affected the way stores operate, such as how workstations are organized and hardware is run. Many workers relocated or retired; Finding and training his successors was not easy.
In other words, the workshops are trying to keep up with the demand. Parsons-Meares has been rushing to fulfill orders for 178 pants, 120 vests and 125 dicks for “Hamilton” alone since June.
For some, the crowd-opening program and the unreasonable demands it places on costume stores seem like the latest example of the Broadway producers’ indifference towards them. “We’re always bottom of the totem pole,” Langman said.
Profit margins are as weak as ever and shops are experiencing a long recovery after the pandemic closures. The Costume Industry Coalition calculated that more than 50 member businesses lost $26.6 million in gross revenue last year. (This group includes Ernest Winzer Cleaners, a largely Broadway-dependent, Bronx-based facility that has been in business since 1908.)
Janet Bloor, owner of Euroco Costumes, said: “We have a payroll protection loan. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a payroll to maintain. We may never catch up with the huge amount of rent we owe. It is still possible that we will not survive the epidemic without some kind of help.”
The Broadway season remains uncertain as the pandemic continues to loom over the return of live performances. “Everyone is very nervous,” Langman said. “Will people go back to the theater? We have work for the next month or two, then what?”
Brian Blythe, founding member of the Costume Industry Coalition, said that recovery could take years. “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 about what it takes to do what we do.”
Some recognition can help.
NS”Demonstrators! Gorgeous Costumes from Stage and ScreenA 20,000-square-foot exhibit on 42nd Street displays over 100 costumes for theater, television, film, cruise ships, and theme parks, along with regular craft demonstrations such as rhinestone treatments and 3D printing.
Given its museum treatment, the exhibition’s costumes can finally be appreciated as closely as the remarkable, wearable sculptures: Henry VIII’s wives’ Tudor-Rihanna meet outfits from the dazzling 18,810 nail-studded “Six”; Corset threads and beads carefully crafted for the “Lion King”; Miodrag Guberinic’s Medusa for Heartbeat Opera with laser-cut serpentine vertebrae; intricate beadwork for “Aladdin”, which occupied beadmaster Polly Kinney daily for nearly six months. Even the gravity-defying undergarments worn by the “Wicked” artists by foundation clothing expert and Bra Tenders owner Lori Kaplan are getting applause.
While “Showstoppers” gives theatergoers a new view of Broadway costume art, members of the Costume Industry Coalition hope Broadway producers can be similarly enlightened.
“Some people think these are things your mom could sew at home,” said Sarah Timberlake, owner of Timberlake Studios. “And so, it doesn’t have to be that expensive. To do this work requires a top rethink on what counts as a living wage and what we might want.”
According to the coalition, Langman sees sexism in the treatment of his field, including wages, where women make up 70 percent of the workforce. “We’ve always been treated as ‘women’ because the majority of our industry is women or gay men,” she said. “That’s the nature of our business. We’ve never had this much power or this much respect compared to guys who can swing hammers in the landscape segment.”
There is broader hope that young people will be attracted to the industry. Many leading clients are approaching retirement age, and the industry is poised to benefit from the fresh eyes of young people who never realized these careers existed. “It would be great for them to know that this is an option,” Langman said. “For kids to know that this is something you can do with a creative and meaningful life.”
This type of advocacy is starting to feel like a second job, but it’s necessary, Langman said. “Customers naturally prefer to stay behind the scenes and support people on stage,” he added. “But we had to push our faces forward – to let everyone know we’re here.”