Financial History 139 (Fall 2021) - Page 33

Courtesy of Triffin and Gregory Morris
The reception area at the costume shop of Barbara Matera ’ s , at 890 Broadway , in 2010 . It is decorated with memorabilia from shows that were built there , as well as artifacts from several Broadway theaters . Matera ’ s was the leading shop for decades . Most of the rest of the building was devoted to rehearsal space , so performers did not have to leave the building for fittings .
a different gown each night . Those were made by some of the early entrepreneurial women who straddled the worlds of theater and fashion , designing and building . Three of the best known are Aline Bernstein , Yetta Shimansky ( who styled herself Kiviette ) and the indefatigable Helene Pons .
Pons was among the first costume makers of any gender to open a large commercial shop with a wide array of equipment including the latest technology at the time , steam-heated dyeing vats . She also patented the first underwire bra . In 1926 , Bernstein made history as the first female accepted into the Brotherhood of Painters , Decorators and Paperhangers Local 829 , a chapter of the American Federation of Labor .
Kiviette was another crossover designer whose atelier made costumes for the stage in addition to bespoke gowns for wealthy clients . “ It takes much more than talent to be a costume designer ,” Kiviette said . “ You must be an astute business woman .” She made costumes in a variety of shops until opening her own atelier in 1928 .
As successful as the pioneering costume makers were , they were not able or interested in providing the countless costumes to myriad productions on Broadway and around the country . Once producers had to provide all actors ’ costumes , a larger industry developed to supply those .
Three main businesses developed into large operations through the middle of the 20th century : Van Horn , Eaves and Brooks . Broadway was their showcase , but in many instances also a loss leader , in modern business parlance . Their main money was in making and renting military , police , professional and band uniforms .
After decades of competition , Brooks bought Van Horn to create BVH . Several years later Eaves bought BVH , creating the final combined business Eaves- Brooks . Through the heyday of the big rental shops , Broadway producers bristled at their power , especially expenses . On many occasions a producer or syndicate attempted to create its own in-house costume shop , but none lasted very long .
In the end it was a combination of factors that did in the big costume shops in New York . The departure of film , then television to California was a heavy blow .
Rentals to regional theater continued , but bands and circuses faded .
There was also new competition , starting in 1956 . That is when Ray Diffen opened his first costume shop in New York . An Englishman , with strong credentials in Shakespearean costumes , Diffen set up shop in New York with a different approach than his contemporaries . It was the via media between the artisans and the big rental houses .
Diffen brought to America a young draper from England who went on to run possibly the most well-known shop on Broadway : Barbara Matera . Many of the shops serving Broadway today are owned by drapers who trace their legacy back to Diffen and / or Matera .
Despite that strong link , the entire theater-costume business was in peril when theaters around the country went dark for the pandemic . Shop owners formed the Costume Industry Coalition ( CIC ) to raise awareness and advocate for this ubiquitous but unknown segment of small business that had been literally hiding in plain sight for decades .
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