Secrets of the Theatrical Costumer: 1903

Costume for The Sleeping Princess, Leon Bakst, 1921 http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/86840.html

Costume for The Sleeping Princess, Leon Bakst, 1921 http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/86840.html

Where the Gorgeous Costumes of the Stage Are Made and Rented.

There are lots of people who can manage to push their way behind the scenes at a play, but there are very few who ever get as far behind the scenes as the shop of the theatrical costumer. In these days of elaborate staging, when the frocks make the actress, the costumer is the heart and soul, the alpha and omega of the play. Without him the prima donna and the problem actress alike would be birds of very shabby feathers, while the show girls would not attract a dozen patrons of the bald-headed row.

He is a mysterious person, whom nobody ever sees. Beyond his name, which is sometimes printed on the program, he is less known than the boy who gives out programs or the ticket taker at the gate. Yet, in his way, e is an artist who deserves to rank beside the manager and the playwright. If, at the last moment he should fail to be on hand with his production, the show could not go on; for the leading lady could not play Juliet in a sailor hat and the leading man could not do Romeo in a white flannel shirt.

The shop of the theatrical costumer is a fascinating place, smelling of moth balls and lavender, glittering with spangles and satins, jewels and tin armor, piled high with boxes and shelves, cluttered with costumes, thrown here and there, picture hats, kimonos, slippers, boots and frock coats lying around in what appears to be the wildest confusion, but what is in reality the most perfect order—so perfect in fact that any employe in the shop can lay his finger on any garment or part of a garment at a moment’s notice. Entering the place is like passing into a sort of fairy land where every character out of every play you have ever seen is dressed and ready to greet you. In a corner the short skirts, flowered petticoats, and shepherdess hat of Perdita lie disconsolate, her little slippers peeping from beneath them. Yonder you might almost fancy that Miss Marlowe had just stepped out and left her Beatrice frocks behind her. Over there is a suit of doublet and hose flung aside by some amateur Cyrano de Bergerac; and a ross the way madam Butterfly might just have taken wings, dropping her fluttering kimono as she went.

But all of the paraphernalia is only the theatrical costumer’s “junk,” hired for the most to amateurs for fancy balls. It is the odds and ends leftover from his big orders for regular customers, the driftwood from the great productions which he has staged. He could not make a living out of such stuff.

His real business is filling big orders of the large and elaborate productions which are put on every autumn. Summer is his great season. In the spring he takes his orders and employs his staff of hands and all through the hot days his shop is the busiest one in town. The machines are buzzing in his work rooms, leading ladies pass one another in disdain upon his stair; chorus girls flit in and out for fittings; managers wait upon him in his office. The president of the Untied States is no more important and no more sought after than is he. Sometimes the theatrical costumer is a designer, an artist of no little merit. He knows history from the flood down and can take his pencil and sketch you a picture of Noah correct to the very curl of his hair. But more often he employs his staff of designers as he employs his cutters, fitters, stitchers, basters and pressers. Every workman in his shop is a specialist, even down to the girls how sew on spangles and mend laces.

A Side Line on the Business.

There is a side line to the costumer’s business which is almost as remunerative as his regular business. It is the making of evening dresses for society women who hire them for a ball or for a season, paying an enormous rental, but not half so much as the frock would have cost them if they had had it made outright.

“You might not fancy,” remarked Carl Wustl, one of New York’s leading costumers, “that there would be a great deal of money in hiring gowns to society women, but there is. Even though the frocks we make cost a small fortune apiece and are designed by French artists and lined throughout with the most costly silk and chiffon, the profits are something extraordinary.

“Your society woman is after all very frugal and once a costumer gets a reputation among the upper ten he will supply half the elaborate costumes for great occasion> You see a society woman does not care to wear a dress more than once or twice, yet she wants the most expensive sort of gowns with the finest workmanship upon them. To hire a French designer and makers such as a costumer must have at his command would make each of her gowns cost a small fortune. Now she can come to us, order any sort of gown she wants, pay about one-third of its value and wear it as often as she would wear it were it her own.

“Here, for instance, is a gown with a remarkable history,” continued the costumer, taking down a gorgeous creation in white satin, tulle, and spangles, which looked as though it had been through an army campaign, so frayed were its ruffles and so tarnished its spangles.

“This gown cost $1,000. There are just 75,000 spangles on it and every one was applied by hand. It was designed and made for one of our best patrons. She is a society woman who is famous for her gowns and is known never to wear a frock on more than one occasion. Her husband is wealthy, but her lavishness in dress astounds even her intimate. This frock she wrote to the famous Bradley-Martin ball. With it she wore hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry. And what do you think the gown cost her? Just $300 for the night. In the morning papers her costume was described in elaborate detail.

Of course a responsible costumer would never by any chance rent a gown to two women in the same set or even in the same class of society. After the Bradley-Martin ball that dress saw no more of the four hundred. It was then let for the season to a certain smart looking woman in quite a different set, who wore it on five occasions only, but paid $500 for having it reserved for her exclusive use for three months. The next season a stock company star saw it. It was renovated and remodeled to her taste and she hired it off and on by the week during the season, paying $50 a week for the use of it. By that time it had pretty well paid for itself. But it was so substantial that it bore renovating once more. A little Jewish bride, who wanted to make a stunning effect and could afford only $10 for her wedding dress, saw it and hired it. After that I seemed that every Jewish bride on the East Side knew of it and it did service at ten or twelve weddings during the winter. With such hard service it got pretty soiled and shabby and I was going to hang it up as a souvenir, when a little Irish girl came in to hire a dress for a fireman’s ball. She saw the $1,000 frock, got stuck on it and it saw one more night of service. Now I am going to keep it as a relic and for good luck. It shan’t go out again,” and the costumer lovingly tucked the soiled satin folds once more into the box.

Sometimes a set of costumes made for a production will have almost as varied a history as the society woman’s frock. Their first appearance in all their pristine freshness is of course in the big metropolitan production for which they are designed. If the play is a success, they are worn by the company or an entire season and carried all over the country. In the spring, when the play closes, they are brought back by the management and bought in once more by the costumer, who gets them for a song. They are then renovated and kept for local stock companies, wo hire them again and again as long as they are presentable. After that they do service in amateur productions and for fancy dress balls.

“The making of theatrical costumes,” said a famous costumer, “is more of a fine art than ever before. The costumes are much more expensive than they used to be in days gone by when the leading lady wore white muslin or black poplin and the kings wore cotton-backed ermine. Costumes now have to be the real thing, inside and out. The satins must be silk backed and heavy enough to stand alone, the laces must be fie and delicate, even the roses on the hats must be silk or velvet, and the gowns must fit without a winkle and be as artistic in cut as the frocks of the wealthiest society women. Managers are as particular as old women and electric lights show up every detail, even to a spangle. The costumer who deals in cheap stuffs and cheap labor will soon lose his custom.”

theatrical-chorus-girls-with-parasols

“Yes, odd things do happen sometimes,” went on the maker of theatrical togs, meditatively smoking his cigar. “Our costumes have some remarkable experiences, and if they could talk might tell some funny stories. I remember once that I was called into court on a curious mission. It was to vie evidence against a chorus girl. I had just the week before made up and sent out a full set of costumes for a comic opera. Six of the costumes were conventional evening frocks of a very elaborate order. They were very expensive and the show girls wore them for only a few moments during the play. After that they were carefully put away in cotton-lined boxes by the maid. With them were large picture hats, silk stockings, gloves and satin slippers.

Her Costume Familiar.

“The first week of the production I dined one night at an up-town restaurant. I had just finished my coffee and was lighting my cigar, when a beautiful young woman entered, followed by a gilded Johnny in full dress. Something about the woman struck me as very familiar, but I could not place her among my acquaintances. As she took her seat she lifted her skirts and, as I caught a glimpse of her satin slipper, it flashed upon me where I had seen it before. She was wearing one of the six costumes I had made for the comic opera production. She was without exception the most stunning woman in the room, and the way she kept the other people turning their necks and trying to guess what famous member of the four hundred she might be would have made any chorus girl want to borrow the company’s costumes for a night.

“But it seems that her glory was only for a night. Somebody must have peached; for next day I was called into court to identify the costume, and a more irate stage manager or a more humiliated chorus girl, I never saw. She confessed, of course, that she had bribed the maid and borrowed the gown for the evening, and protested with many tears that she had not hurt the gown a bit. But she was fined just the same. It was only one of the sad little scenes that pass with the rest of the tragedies and comedies under the nose of the theatrical costumer.”

Denver [CO] Post 25 October 1903: p. 36

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil has previously reported on moving-picture actresses who are martyrs to their public’s demand for the latest in fashionable frocks.  This peep at the behind-the-scenes workings of the theatrical costumer sheds a fascinating light on where the “Four Hundred” get their gowns.

Mrs Daffodil once knew of a lady whose beauty and title could not obscure her lack of breeding. She had contracted with a costumer (as did the lady of the one-thousand-dollar dress above) for a unique and exquisite ball gown in which she hoped to burst upon Society as the wife of an elderly Duke. (They had been hastily married abroad and His Grace wished to show off his new acquisition to his friends and disapproving children of his first marriage.) For a young person who had just risen from a theatrical background (second chorus, mind…) she had been most exacting and disagreeable with the costumer and particularly with those ladies who were in charge of sewing on the spangles. The costumer, who knew a parvenu (and a potential annulment) when he saw one, supplied his spanglers and dressmakers with some aged thread which he had been meaning to discard.

Her Grace was the cynosure of all eyes in the breathtaking gown, particularly when she began to shed her spangles. A little drift of the glittering objects swirled about her hem in the receiving line and several guests were seen discreetly removing sequins from their soup at dinner. His Grace got several spangles down his throat during the first waltz with his new bride and had to be assisted back to his quarters, red-faced and choking. Her Grace had no shortage of partners, and so carried on, until, about the third Waltz-Gallop, the well-fitted seams of her gown began to show the strain. First she shed a sleeve, then the bodice fastening parted, and when her train gave way abruptly, Her Grace found herself in the embarrassing position of a Nymph Surprised While Bathing, with rather more Valenciennes insertion.  The Duke’s children instituted legal proceedings for a swift annulment; and, although she received ample heart-balm through the courts, the young person is now back in the chorus.

Surely a lesson for us all to be kind to those who have been placed in humbler circumstances than ourselves.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. 

 

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3 thoughts on “Secrets of the Theatrical Costumer: 1903

  1. Pingback: Secrets of the Theatrical Costumer: 1903 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses | Rogues & Vagabonds

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