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Two million beads and counting: Recruiting the next generation of costume makers

Donna Langman’s costume shop.

​Broadway fans are likely familiar with the beaded corsets that dress young Simba and Nala in “The Lion King” musical. Superfans might even know that Julie Taymor designed the outfits and won a Tony Award for her costume designs in 1998. 

The number of beads that were used by the costume shop Parsons-Meares to make the colorful corsets: 2.135 million.

This fact, displayed in the “Showstoppers! Spectacular Costumes from Stage to Screen” exhibition, is one way the Costume Industry Coalition is spreading awareness about its craft to stay afloat during the pandemic –  and to recruit new talent. The exhibition, located in the Theater District on West 42nd Street, showcased finished costumes, along with the intricate details that go into the design, like beading, embroidery, fabric choice and pattern making. It also included interactive demonstrations,which, among other things, gave visitors the chance to use an 1895 sequin embroidery machine. 

After the shutdown of Broadway theaters and cultural centers in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York City costume industry came together to form the Costume Industry Coalition with advocacy and awareness initiatives. They formally proposed a “Six Point Action Plan” that targets economic and policy adjustments to support costume makers in their efforts to reopen and survive in the pandemic. 

The exhibition, which closed in December, aimed to raise money to support the industry, which is collectively $4 million in debt, and attract attention and interest to field. Despite a two-week shutdown caused by a flood in October, the exhibition hosted over 14,000 guests during its four-month run. 

“If you look at a sketch of, say, a costume from ‘The Lion King,’ and then look at how Parsons-Meares lays it out, and the kind of materials they use, we’re talking a completely different animal,” said Mimi Maxmen, costume designer and assistant professor at The New School, Parsons School of Design. 

Last fall, Maxmen took her students to the exhibition, and to Parsons-Meares, Ltd., the costume shop that produced some of the costumes for “The Lion King” and other Broadway hits like “Frozen.” These experiences enrich a student’s understanding of the nuances in costume making that influence design, she said. It was an opportunity to examine costumes and the creation process up close, and hopefully spark interest in the field.  

“They can see what costume-making is because these are Parsons students and many of them can easily get a job in a costume shop because they sew, they drape, or whatever. So a lot of times this is a job possibility,” said Maxmen. 

Gianna Rosina, one of Maxmen’s students, hopes to design costumes for film in the future. She was impressed by the level of mastery showcased in the exhibition, particularly in a costume for “Phantom of the Opera.” 

“I remember zooming my camera in for the magnifying glass to see how they sewed it together,” she said. 

Rosina, who has been making costumes since she was 14, said that although she was inspired, she does not aspire to be a costume maker herself. 

“I know people who can do it a lot better than I can. And I would definitely want to just sketch it out and hand it to somebody,” she added.  

Because of the pandemic, it has been difficult to find professionals to meet the demand for costume work, now that theaters are opening again, said Brian Blythe, business manager for John Kristiansen New York Inc., a costume shop, and co-founder of the Costume Industry Coalition.    

“We’ve had some people retire, we’ve had other crafters or specialists who have left the city because they couldn’t afford it,” he said. Others have quit because “the lack of financial respect to our industry has led them to the realization that they don’t get any joy out of what they’re doing.”

Now, Blythe said, “We’re all trying to find qualified people to make world-class costumes.”

The omicron variant, which emerged in New York City in December, presented new challenges for the costume industry’s reach, labor and finances. New York State requires shops like Blythe’s to provide five days of paid sick leave for employees that “are under a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19,” or if their “minor dependent child” must quarantine. This extra paid leave is in addition to regular time off. 

“Our industry is technically reopened, but we’re currently fatigued, dealing with a depleted workforce and supply chain issues,” he said. 

Donna Langman, a costume maker who has been in the business for 45 years and who has created costumes for productions of “The Lion King” and “Hamilton,” among others, said that a production only needs one designer, “but not one costume maker can make an entire show’s clothes.” 

In her shop, costume prices range from $4,000 to $15,000 each, with prices going up to $20,000 for more complicated pieces. 

“For ‘Hamilton,’ which we work on, the leading lady will wear that for eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year. It lasts at least a whole year, so they’re not made cheaply,” she said. 

Each of these garments take about two weeks to make, Langman added. 

In addition to the exhibition, the coalition has expanded its reach with tools like social media and a podcast called “Into Costume,” hosted by Devario D. Simmons. The podcast hosts an array of guests including costume makers, designers and the actors who wear the costumes. In one recent episode, Simmons discussed the costumes for the Amazon Prime show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He spoke with actor Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the protagonist, designer Donna Zakowska and Eric Winterling, a costume maker and member of the Costume Industry Coalition. 

“I don’t think I knew who Midge Maisel was until I looked in the mirror for the first time with the costume on,” said Brosnahan. “Clothes are her armor.” 

The coalition sells patterns for a dress from the show designed by Zakowska on Etsy. Proceeds from the shop support the coalition. 

Also available in the shop are patterns for the “Hamilton” Spencer jacket, which is short-waisted. The coalition partnered with dress historian and social media influencer Bernadette Banner on a YouTube video where she constructs the jacket. The video has more than 397,000 views as of this writing. 

Maxmen suggested incorporating an unlikely expansion to the tactile field to recruit new talent and make up financial ground: digital mediums. Design schools, she said, should include gaming and animation into their programs. 

“I got a call years ago from somebody who was an animator at Pixar, asking me about how fabric, a certain kind of fabric, moved,” she said. These partnerships could provide more opportunity to makers in the field who are experts in design and textiles. 

Asa Benally, a costume and fashion designer, said that superhero movies like “The Black Panther” can inspire creativity with clothes. Young artists can see the potential to express themselves by creating their own idea of a superhero cape or costume. 

“Cosplay has interested a lot of people in at least making clothes,” said Langman. “Whether that evolves to an interest in theatrical wear or theatrical costume is a question to be answered.”

By the end of 2021, the Costume Industry Coalition distributed $500,000 to its members, “50 small, unique, independent businesses and artisans.” They are currently working on another idea to raise money and gain attention: a ticketed virtual tour of the exhibition. 

The best way to recruit new talent to the industry, though, is for the industry to transform into an accessible and balanced career path for artists, Benally said. 

“I think it’s really good that people are getting pissed off and demanding things like sustainable practices – emotionally, physically, artistically sustainable practices,” he said.

Written by

Lauren Sagnella is a first year part-time student at Columbia Journalism School where she works to nurture her interests in podcasts and feature writing.