Showstoppers! Exhibit Celebrates the Unsung Heroes of the Costume Industry
Some of the milliners highlighted in the exhibit in Times Square reflect on the past year and the future of live theater in New York City.
The new exhibit Showstoppers! is not only a showcase for dazzling costumes, but also an illuminating tribute to those working behind the scenes to help realize designers' visions. But as live theater re-emerges from its long hibernation, walking through the exhibit is also sobering. Rarely during the pandemic has the plight of the milliners, beaders, sewers, painters, and other artisans of the theater industry received attention. .
That last problem led Brian Blythe, an organizer of the exhibit, to co-found the Costume Industry Coalition, for which the show is raising funds. Comprising 50 businesses and artisans in and around New York City, the coalition was created to make sure the industry wasn't forgotten. "We started the coalition to get a seat at the table," Blythe explains, "to make sure we were part of the conversation as things started to reopen."
As part of the exhibit, some of the people involved in the industry swing by to do their work in person. On the day I attended, Margaret Peot, a costume painter for the company Parsons-Meares, was there with one of her colleagues.
Peot, who has been with Parsons-Meares for 30 years, says she had been working on an understudy costume for Moulin Rouge! before Broadway theaters shut down on March 12, 2020. "[Sally Ann Parsons's] team had just laid out the pants for me to paint, and I was planning on coming in the next day to work on them. Then I got a call saying, well, there's this thing happening, and we're probably going to be closed for two weeks. As you know, it was longer than that."
Polly Kinney, a beader whose handiwork on Aladdin has a section all to itself, has been in the costume industry since the mid-1980s. Before last March, she was working on Aladdin and two other projects — beading for both a Black Panther costume for costume shop owner John Kristiansen and a dress designed by Tracy Christensen for an Encores! Off-Center presentation of Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner's Love Life scheduled last summer.
On March 13, 2020, Kinney, who resides in Jersey City, New Jersey, recalls, "I went [into NYC] because I wanted to deliver the dress for Tracy Christensen and I had things to deliver to John Kristiansen for the Black Panther project. When they came to pick up the dress for Tracy Christensen's project, I said, 'I hope that they like it.' And they said, 'Oh, well, the show's canceled.' So then I went onto John Kristiansen's, and John wasn't there that day, which was odd because he's usually always there. Unbeknownst to me, John was in the hospital with Covid the day I went in to deliver that stuff."
Helen Uffner, the owner of a long-running vintage clothing rental company, also has a section of her own in the exhibit featuring some of the wardrobe she has provided for theater, film, and television. She had been working on 18 different projects before the shutdown. "All the projects returned the wardrobe or kept it," Uffner recalls. "They asked to be charged a nominal charge. We actually gave them many months free because that was the only fair thing to do."
Uffner had an especially difficult time during quarantine. "We didn't get any Paycheck Protection Program money because I didn't have any employees," she said. "I had to live on my savings. Then in September, I had only been here in my new space [in Long Island City] for two years, and the landlord let everybody know he was tearing the building down so he could build a high-rise."
All three still found ways to stay busy while stuck at home. Peot had a couple of children's books she was able to work on in her studio, and last fall, she and two other Parsons-Meares painter colleagues worked on a Colorado Ballet production of The Nutcracker that will premiere this winter. Still, she says she missed the collaborative nature of working at Parsons-Meares.
"When we're really busy in the theater, I used to wish I could have time by myself in my studio to work," Peot remembers. "But then, when I actually got it in spades, I really missed working in that collaborative world."
FedEx became Kinney's go-to when she was asked to work on a couple of beading projects for the upcoming HBO series ''The Gilded Age' last year, including a dress for Christine Baranski on which she collaborated with Jersey City-based designer Barak Stribling. "They would give me the project and we'd Zoom about it. I would do some samples and send them through FedEx, and they would pick and choose and send it back to me."
Uffner was even more inventive. She recalled an experience last summer in which a designer asked for a purse for a commercial. "The costume designer would pass by in his car and I would toss the bag. We wouldn't even be near each other. And then they would leave the bag downstairs, and then I would go in and pick up the bag."
Now that live theater is returning, all three have varied thoughts about the immediate future of the costume industry.
"I hope theater reopens for the sake of the Costume Industry Coalition, because unfortunately a lot of them do not work on film and television because it's cost-prohibitive," says Uffner.
"There have to be new shows coming," Kinney says, "because that's where the next job comes from. I know Disney has shows in the planning stages, but ... it takes a long time to make a show."
Peot holds out hope that the costume industry will find a way back. "To be in a theater together with the lights down — it's our contemporary campfire, and I think people who work for theater are really scrappy and want to make things happen," she says. "I think people want to be together and watching theater again."