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Many Stages Are Still Dark, But You Can Now See These Iconic Costumes Up Close

Aug 18, 2021
Originally published on August 18, 2021 8:08 am

The costume industry in New York was hit hard by the pandemic — over 500 people who work as patternmakers, stitchers, beaders, milliners and painters were idled, as theater and film production shut down. A new exhibition called Showstoppers!: Spectacular Costumes from Stage and Screen has opened on 42nd Street, in the heart of the theater district, to show off their work.

When you see a Broadway show, the costumes need to be visible from the front row of the orchestra to the back row of the balcony. "People don't get to see them this close up," says Brian Blythe, one of the founders of the Costume Industry Coalition, a group of 55 costume shops and businesses that service Broadway and film. They've sponsored the exhibition. He adds, "They've never realized that every single bead and every single bauble that's on one of these costumes is hand placed."

There are over 100 of these couture costumes on display, from Hamilton, to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, to Frozen. Blythe points to one of Elsa's dresses from the Disney show. "When you look at the Frozen Ice Dress, the crystals involved and the mirrors and all of the beading that is on there, the weight of that dress is so heavy because it is so full of all of this ornamentation," he says.

Can't Let It Go: Two looks from Disney's Frozen, by Christopher Oram, including Elsa's Ice Dress
Rebecca J. Michelson / Grapevine Public Relations

But the exhibition, which is installed in a former sporting goods store which went belly up during the pandemic, features more than costumes — as you walk through it, you can see people at work, making the real hats and clothes actors will wear onstage. On the afternoon I attended, I saw two people working on understudy costumes for the new musical, Six.

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: Gabriella Slade's costumes from Six, a musical about Henry VIII's wives, feature 18,000 studs.
Rebecca J. Michelson / Grapevine Public Relations

Meg Wheedon is a draper. "I'm in the process right now of correcting some patterns for the understudies," she explains. "I've had a couple fittings. They've come in now to the city. And so now I'm taking their patterns and correcting them so that then we can cut it out of all the real fabrics."

Gillian Conahan works at the Showstoppers! exhibition on Aug. 4, 2021, in New York City.
Arturo Holmes / Getty Images

Elsewhere in the exhibition, I saw a glovemaker, embroiderers and a milliner, all plying their crafts. "I'm doing some wire bending for showgirl headdresses," says Caleb Howell, at his station. In addition to making hats, he works as a Broadway dresser. "The pandemic was rough," he says. "It really was rough."

And the industry, which is 70% female and over a third immigrant, has been hurting, says Brian Blythe. "We're over $3.5 million in collective debt and that debt continues to grow every month." So, the proceeds from the show will help to pay it off.

Gorgeous in Green: A selection of Susan Hilferty's Tony Award-winning costumes from Wicked
Arturo Holmes / Getty Images
Good Enough to Eat: Light as air whimsy from American Ballet Theatre's Whipped Cream, costumes designed by Mark Ryden
Arturo Holmes / Getty Images

Broadway fan Sarah Montana loved seeing the exhibition and supporting the costume shops. "It's so cool to be able to see these things up close and personal and to see just how much goes into them, the thought process behind them," Montana says. And she adds, laughing, "It was great to actually do the interactive downstairs and play with sequins!"

Showstoppers is running through Sept. 26, 2021.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The industry that makes costumes for Broadway, movie and TV productions in New York is trying to recover after being hit hard by the pandemic. More than 500 people who work as patternmakers, stitchers, hat makers and painters were left without work as theater and film production shut down. Now a new exhibition called Showstoppers! on 42nd Street in the heart of the theater district is showing off their work. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When you see a Broadway show, the costumes need to be visible from the front row of the orchestra to the back row of the balcony.

BRIAN BLYTHE: People don't get to see them this close up. They've never realized that every single bead and every single bauble that's on one of these costumes is hand placed.

LUNDEN: Brian Blythe is a founder of the Costume Industry Coalition, a group of 55 costume shops and businesses that service Broadway and film. They've sponsored the exhibition. Blythe shows me one of Elsa's dresses from Disney's "Frozen."

BLYTHE: When you look at the "Frozen" ice dress, the crystals involved and the mirrors and all of the beading that is on there, the weight of that dress is so heavy because it is so full of all of this ornamentation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO (FROM "FROZEN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL")")

CAISSIE LEVY: (As Elsa, singing) Let it go. Let it go. Can't hold it back anymore.

LUNDEN: And this exhibition in a former sporting goods store that went belly-up during the pandemic is filled with examples of the craft and care that goes into costumes, from "Hamilton" to "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" to the new musical "Six."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EX-WIVES")

RENEE LAMB: (As Catherine of Aragon) Divorced.

CHRISTINA MODESTOU: (As Anne Boleyn) Beheaded.

NATALIE PARIS: (As Jane Seymour) Died.

LUNDEN: As you walk through the exhibition, you can see people at work making the real hats and clothes actors wear onstage. On the afternoon I attended, I saw two people working on understudy costumes for "Six." Meg Weedon (ph) is a draper.

MEG WEEDON: I'm in the process right now of correcting some patterns for the understudies. I've had a couple of fittings. They've come in now to the city, and so now I'm taking their patterns and correcting them so that then we can cut it out of all the real fabrics.

LUNDEN: Elsewhere in the exhibition, I met Caleb Howell, a milliner, making hats.

CALEB HOWELL: I'm doing some wire-bending for showgirl headdresses.

LUNDEN: Howell says he lost all of his Broadway work during the pandemic.

HOWELL: The pandemic was rough. It really was rough.

LUNDEN: And the industry, which is 70% female and over a third immigrant, has been hurting. Most businesses are deeply in debt, so the proceeds from the show will help to pay it off. Broadway fan Sarah Montana loved seeing the exhibition and supporting the costume shops.

SARAH MONTANA: It's so cool to be able to see these things up close and personal and to see just how much goes into them and the thought process behind them. It was great to actually do the interactive downstairs and play with sequins.

LUNDEN: Showstoppers! is running through September 26.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE")

ANNIE CAST: (As characters, singing) You're never fully dressed without a smile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.