September 20, 2021

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Velvet, Organza and Vipers: Stage Costumes Dazzle

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Here is what you can’t see from the rear mezzanine of a theater: the flocked velvet, the ruby-like rhinestones, the layered fabrics that shape a lush rosette atop each dance pump. This is the Red Death costume from the “Masquerade” number in “The Phantom of the Opera.” A carnival of flocked velvet and gold braid, it integrates art and craft, glamour and kitsch, fantasy and hand-sewn reality.

Red Death awaits you on the lower level of “Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes From Stage and Screen,” a pop-up exhibition to benefit the recently formed Costume Industry Coalition, an alliance of over 50 New York City-based small businesses and independent artisans.

On Broadway, even in the best seats, an orchestra pit separates you from the finery. At “Showstoppers!,” which runs through Sept. 26 in a former Modell’s branch in Times Square, you can stand close enough to make out individual threads.

When theaters went dark last year because of the pandemic, costume fabricators had to close up shop, too. Designers are the visible faces of this industry — they’re the ones who collect the Tony Awards, though not during the broadcast portions of the ceremony. But while they dream up the costumes, it is the fabricators — the tailors and seamstresses and embroiderers and weavers and beaders and pleaters and painters and milliners and glovers and cobblers — who actually build them.

“We create the three-dimensional moving piece of art,” Brian Blythe, one of the exhibition’s organizers, said. Many of the pieces are couture items, built on the bodies of individual performers and retired when those actors leave a show.

“Showstoppers!” displays 100-odd costumes, as well as a handful of the tools used to make them, like millinery blocks and a 19th-century crewel machine from the embroiderers Penn & Fletcher.

The exhibition was put together in three and a half months, and its lighting, sound and design (from Thinc Design) were provided at cost or gratis. So it feels inevitably ad hoc. The Broadway and opera displays put their custom-shod feet forward; the film, television, theme park and dance portions hang back. The selection reflects less a dedication vision, and more what could be begged, borrowed or briskly replicated.

But what’s more theatrical than a let’s-put-on-a-show ethos?

Not every garment benefits from close study. Some need the alchemy of star power and stage lighting to shine. Still, each testifies to the men and women (mostly women), who have patiently attached every ribbon and rhinestone. A handful of these craftspeople will be on site, plying their spangled trades during opening hours. Here are 10 highlights from the show.

“The Cher Show” apportioned its heroine’s life among three actresses, referred to in the biomusical as Babe, Star and Lady. The exhibition includes the costumes for all three of them in the number “If I Could Turn Back Time,” a slinky triptych of velvet, rhinestones and boots. When Cher came to see the Broadway show, she reminded the designer Bob Mackie that she hadn’t actually worn the glamorous bat wings that crown the display. “You would have if I’d drawn them,” he told he

A few steps away huddle replicas of the outfits for “Six,” a pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII that was originally set to open the day Broadway shut down. The Tudor-inspired minidresses are built from plastics, vinyl and the occasional Swarovski crystal. They gesture to the 16th-century — the lattice patterning, the corsetry — but also the likes of contemporary stars such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande. Thousands of metal studs, some so sharp they could cut you, adorn the outfits. Each boasts a personalized mic holster.

One of the exhibition’s displays pays tribute to Disney’s Broadway dominance. (“Frozen” announced its closure during the pandemic, but “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” will soon reopen.) Up close, the “Aladdin” costumes offer astonishing intricacies, like the beaded birds and flowering vines that meander up and down Aladdin’s turquoise robe. The delicate embroidery on Jasmine’s pink skirts may be difficult to discern without a close-up look, but see how it contrasts with the unapologetic opulence of her top.

Perhaps the most memorable element of “The Lion King” is its life-size animal heads, designed by the director Julie Taymor and the mask and puppet designer Michael Curry. (The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has acquired two of them for its theater and performance collection.) But “Showstopper!” shows the complexity of subtler costumes. Take the grasslands corset: Strands of rope form a skirt below. Above, cloth blades are loomed, by hand, into more rope to create a bodice at once enduring and delicate.

Diamonds are forever. Ostrich feather boas are not. In the Sparkling Diamond look from “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” the courtesan Satine perches in a swing in a strapless gown, a top hat, high-heeled boots and a necklace that could strain the cervical vertebrae. There are diamanté rhinestones in a firework pattern on the heart-shaped bodice, individual gems sewn to the stockings. Even the boots’ heels sparkle. In a nod to Satine’s vulnerability, the skirt — made of ostrich feathers and mylar tinsel — softens her look’s diamond hardness.

During the “One Short Day” number from “Wicked,” the school-age witches Glinda and Elphaba arrive in the Emerald City, off to see the wizard. The verdant costume for just one townswoman involves 900 yards of ombré-dyed organza ribbon. (It gives the effect of an ordinary day dress overrun with lettuce.) The dress’s skirt has a kick pleat, and if you glance beneath it, you’ll find five layers of underskirt, three of them meticulously embroidered, just in case the performer lifts her dancing shoe.

When Paul Tazewell was designing the costumes for “Hamilton,” the musical’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, told him that Hamilton’s suit ought to be green. Not just any green, but the color of money. (Pity the costume assistant who had to visit the city’s fabric stores, clutching a 10-dollar bill.) The final outfit is ultimately more lush than cash, and it yields other surprises, too: like the feminine lace at each cuff, and the waterfall ruff that encircles the neck.

Some of the gloves from Wing + Weft, the last glove-maker in the garment district, have built-in claws. Others are sequined, feathered, fringed, beaded, buttoned, ruched and pearled. The studio designs for theater, film and television, and (along with its immediate predecessor, Lacrasia Gloves) have also gloved a dozen first ladies. But many of the most splendid creations seen here are for drag and burlesque — gloves designed to be worn and then, finger by finger, flirtatiously removed.

The Phantom’s Red Death outfit is so top-heavy, it’s surprising that it hasn’t caused actors to fall down the stairs in “Masquerade.” There’s the feather-bedecked cavalier hat, the skull mask, the beads, rubies, buttons, trim and sofa’s worth of tassels that pull together the stomacher, a Renaissance-era decorated panel. Turn your back on that outfits, and you will find designs from another archetypical scene — Christine’s white nightgown and the Phantom’s black cape from “The Music of the Night.”

Take one look at Medusa, and you’ll turn to stone. That won’t happen at “Showstoppers!,” but when you see this mannequin dressed in the Medusa costume from Heartbeat Opera’s “Dragus Maximus,” a queer take on the Homeric myths, you might stop cold. The gown is wreathed in vipers, each of them 3-D printed at the behest of the designer Miodrag Guberinic. Compared with the other looks on view, it’s has a less artisanal approach, but it’s no less intricate or exciting. And it hints at fabrication’s future.

Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes From Stage and Screen
Through Sept. 26 at 234 West 42nd Street; showstoppersnyc.com.

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