Behind the Glamorous Costumes: Sharp Needles and Strategies

Novemeber 26, 2014
Betsy Harris explains the care of costumes to cast members    
©2014 Constance Sanders

When Betsy Harris was recruited to be the costume director for the Christ Church Boar’s Head Festival, she was a new cathedral member, and not many people knew her. She was also pretty short, so she feared that nobody would find her in a sea of taller cast members.

So she did what any daughter of a Broadway dancer by night would do: She put a felt reindeer antler fascinator on her head when working the crowded undercroft on performance weekends. “So people who needed something could see me!”

She hasn’t gotten any taller, but 12 years later, everybody knows who she is -- and where she sets up in the undercroft with enough supplies to start a tailor shop. 

What most people don’t know, though, is how she has transformed the care of hundreds of individual garments -- from ballet slippers to satin hats -- that costume almost 200 cast members.

Because many of the costumes she inherited were wearing out, her first priority was conservation: better storage and hanging, repairs before storage rather than just before next year’s performances, strategic additions to hems, seams and necklines to not only dress up garments but make them stronger.

Though she’d rather preserve than replace, she was able to pick up a few treasures when the Middletown opera closed down a few years ago and a local church disbanded its Boar’s Head play. Donations from parishioners and friends make their way into the treasure chests, and angel donors help when the only solution is to have something new made. She keeps a close eye on costumes that are approaching the end of their lives and plans to establish a more formal costume donor program for people who would like to help her keep the Boar’s Head cast looking fabulous.

Costume volunteer Susan West (right) making final adjustments
for cast member Karen Taylor, 2014
Shirley Wang, photo

Betsy Harris (left) with Susan West, another very talented seamstress.
 Susan made these aprons for the Costume team, 2014
Shirley Wang, photo

She is assisted by a half-dozen volunteers good with needle and thread. That’s a blessing because top-notch seamstresses are hard to find these days, she says.

Betsy comes to the job with two important sets of skills: those learned in her training in fashion design and illustration, and those learned in running a business with her husband, Chuck. She’s as good with spreadsheets as she is with fine fabrics.

And then there’s the unglamorous work of cleaning. “Part of the job,” she says, “is that you have to be willing to do laundry and ironing.” And do it very carefully. What she’s too modest to say is that personal commitment is a huge part of the job, too. She’s a devoted reader, and it’s telling when it slips out that she has no time for books in December and January.

But then, Betsy and crew read a story in every tunic, sash and cloak they care for – and because they do, the Boar’s Head story heard by thousands every year is that much more powerful.

No comments:

Post a Comment