Whistling The Wardrobe: The Dazzling Fashions of Priscilla and Brother's Keeper
You could hear the audience gasp at the 2016 production of The Other Cinderella when our much-abused heroine's drab household duster swirled gracefully into a princess-line gown as supple and shimmering as molten gold. The same response greets the entrance of Taylay Thomas, playing mid 20th-century Hollywood icon Dorothy Dandridge, in the currently-running My Brother's Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers as she steps forth clad head-to-foot in a mermaid dress of silver lame reflecting back the stage lights like a thousand mirrors. Elsewhere in Chicago, at the intimate Pride Arts Center, nearly every scene in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is heralded by front-row spectators all but swooning in ecstasy at performers swaddled in enough sparkle to induce sequin-sunburn.
The adage about theater patrons not going home humming the scenery might be true, but it's not uncommon to hear post-show chat along the lines of "Where can I get a dress like that?" or "Does that costume designer have a shop?" or "Do they take private orders?" Theatergoers have been witnessed scribbling "look for something like that" in the margins of their playbills. One year, a presenter at the Jeff Awards ceremonies reported for duty in a vintage "New Look" cocktail dress featured only weeks earlier in a tiny storefront production.
What happens to these breathtaking garments after the show closes? While long-time Chicago playgoers may recall a certain merchandiser of antique clothing who sponsored plays in order to showcase his wares (even to setting up a retail booth in the lobby), most stage wardrobes are constructed solely for a single production.
John Nasca, the sartorial artist responsible for Priscilla's dazzling array of glitter-garb, notes that clothes worn eight nights a week by actors sprinting, kicking and sweating like Olympic athletes usually undergo as much stress in a single run as ordinary street gear does over several years, making them unfit for close-up social events. This doesn't mean that their turn in the spotlights is over, however,
"What the theater paid for, it owns, and many theaters will keep the costumes for the convenience of other designers in the future," admits Nasca, but then adds, "I, myself, have a storage room, several closets and a garage full of wearable items that I recycle, including my own designs and collectors' items by Vera Wang and Bob Mackie. This way, when I work with theaters that have limited budgets, I can pull costumes from my own collection."
At Black Ensemble, all clothing—even shoes and hair ornaments—is saved for re-use when needed. "After every show, all of our costumes are cleaned and put away," explains company founder Jackie Taylor, "Since the same actors often appear in different shows, it helps to have things on hand that we know will fit them." Taylor's theater never rents out costumes, though they may allow smaller theaters to borrow certain pieces from time to time.
So how do wishful theatergoers go about finding the flash-fab fashions to live out their fantasy? Nasca notes that many of his creations are available for purchase in boutiques and even emporiums like I. Magnin. He also has been known to accept individual commissions for weddings or similar gala occasions. "Everybody deserves to look movie star-glamorous now and then."
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert runs at the Pride Films and Plays Broadway Center through March 12
My Brother's Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers runs at the Black Ensemble Theatre through March 26
Mary Shen Barnidge
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