I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published September 28th 2010
If your Halloween costume is hanging by a thread and you're fresh out of ideas with the season of ghosts nearly upon us, you might want to pay a visit to one of New York City's most inspired destinations, Barbara Matera, Ltd., an old-school costume maker on Broadway in the Flatiron District. Although tours aren't given formally, gracious employees, including head costumer Polly Kinney, will show small groups around the unique space and answer questions about the behind-the-scenes process of costume-making.
Boundless energy and creativity pulses behind the doors of Barbara Matera, New York's most famous costume shop for film and Broadway. The place is vibrant and alive, equipped with an inspired spirit that defines New York's distinction for being the center of the world's liveliest theater district.
Having served the theater, opera, ballet, and film and television industries for nearly 50 years, the Barbara Matera shop and its group of devoted artisans have single handedly defined costume making for generations. Its list of credits reads like a tour de force: A Chorus Line, A Little Night Music, Angels in America, Annie Get You Gun, Beauty and the Beast, Crazy for You, Dream Girls, Grand Hotel, Into the Woods, Kiss Me Kate, La Cage aux Folles, Sunday in the Park with George, Drowsy Chaperone, and many more.
On the day of your visit you might see costumes from The Lion King being recreated, as well as corsets and tutus worn by dancers of the American Ballet Theatre. Drapers might be preparing mock up designs for 2010's Nutcracker. In between dashing for fabric swatches and checking on the progress of its many deadlines, employees rush about the shop while beaders sit, backed arched, sewing tiny jewels on delicate lace. Head costume maker Polly Kinney will answer a few questions while leading you through a quick impromptu tour. Though the seamstresses are a calm bunch, you get the feeling that the work is demanding, unyielding.
The show goes on no matter what happens. If only two people show up to work, we don't change the schedule. And it's hard work. It's hard for a cutter to stand at a table all day—basically it's a stand-up job—with a tracing wheel in their hand and a scissors cutting. We have frequent wrist and hand injuries. We have women who sit at sewing machines all day, and you know if you've ever done it, [that] your back hurts, your shoulders hurt, and then you sew through your finger. You're under a lot of pressure," says Kinney with a smile. Still, they are happy to be in the spotlight, if only for a moment.
So, if Broadway is your thing, but you want a chance to meet some of the seasoned professionals who work behind-the-scenes instead of on stage, consider scheduling a tour of Barbara Matera, Ltd. Reservations are required. Late afternoon tours are best, as are visits in small groups. Who knows? You might just catch a little of that Broadway buzz yourself...