by Joann Jovinelly
|Polly Kinney did the beadwork on this sequined tutu|
While most people concern themselves with dressing in costume just once a year at Halloween, veteran New York City-based seamstress Polly Kinney drapes, sews, and adjusts all kinds of costumes on a daily basis.
Kinney is known most for her 25-year tenure at renowned New York costume house Barbara Matera Ltd., a leading couturier for more than 100 shows on the Great White Way. The company has served the theatre, opera, ballet, and film and television industries, providing wardrobe for some of New York’s most beloved Broadway musicals such as A Chorus Line, Kiss Me Kate, Angels in America, Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast, La Cage Aux Folles and others.
Up until 2010, it was Matera who influenced Kinney’s work style and ethic, encouraging her to keep the standards high.
“Barbara Matera paid extreme attention to detail, which was very inspirational,” Kinney says. “She was so brilliant, so passionate. If you had to stay until 10PM every night to get things right, then you did. She was very dedicated to the work and she passed that on to me.” Matera died in 2001 at the age of 72.
Since leaving Matera, Kinney has freelanced as a beading consultant for Makropulos Case at the Metropolitan Opera, Mame at the Goodspeed Opera, and most recently for the up and coming Broadway production of Kinky Boots, scheduled to preview in March of 2013.
Kinney has rebeaded costumes from The Lion King and redesigned corsets and tutus for the American Ballet Theatre, among others. And she’s done it all with composure and a smile.
“The work is demanding and the hours are long. Many days are spent hunched over a sewing machine. There are frequent wrist and hand injuries. And the deadlines keep coming.”
|Polly Kinney became a successful NY costumer without a sewing background|
Kinney, who has a background in fine arts and is also a painter, got her degree in Theatrical Design, but when she first came to New York back in the 1980s, she just wanted to make hats. Before long, she landed a job with the head milliner for A Chorus Line, and about 200 top hats later, she was offered the position as a draper at Barbara Matera.
Her lack of a sewing background hasn’t hurt her career. Kinney says she learned a great deal from Matera about specific ways of doing things, ideas that she now holds fast as rules of the industry.
“The seamstresses know exactly how the bone tape goes on, what we thread mark and flat line by machine, and what we flat line by hand,” Kinney explains. When at Matera, I wanted to know everything, but then I came to realize that you have to learn as you go; you must learn the process.”
Admittedly, the thought of taking a costume idea from a sketch to a finished garment is mind-boggling. So much goes into the work of sewing an original costume for stage and screen. In the old days, one shop usually did it all from start to finish, but today, producers hire specialists from many different shops to collaborate, usually to reduce the amount of time and money needed.
|A mock-up jacket|
A lot happens before the costumers are even chosen in a bidding process. “Once we have the materials, we make mock-up costumes. Sometimes a mock-up is only half the costume and then the designer returns, tweaks it, and then you make a pattern,” Kinney explains.
Afterward, a standard “fit” model is selected and the fittings begin when all the performers are measured. Fittings are labor-intensive too. A costume might need to be completely reworked for one or two performers because they are very petite, or because the collars are too big.
Later, all of the mock costumes are stripped of zippers, recycled, and donated to New York’s various underground theatre companies.
Considering the hours of labor, it’s comforting to know that those mock-ups are put to good use. Even though they’re mere prototypes of those originals making it to the stage, some of Kinney’s sequined creations may still be floating throughout the footlights of various theaters in New York City.
|One of Polly Kinney’s sequined creations|