Here I am, finally back in the confessional. Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been 13 months since my last visit to you. The father-confessor, to whom I seek absolution, is Eric Winterling, one of the great costume designers of Broadway, and I confess that (whisper it!) The pandemic had been nasty in my arms. To be precise, the top of my arm at the back, with a strange new pocket of femininity growing just inside my elbow, on both sides.
I had to admit this news because that’s what actors do when you’re trying on costumes. For a show, we want to make an impression, and that means we have to take care of our bodies, and we need someone we can tell the truth to.
A beautiful fitter named Rita zips me into a dress and adjusts my underwear. The pandemic has been filled with women writing on their bra drawers and what they don’t need; one actress has an extra secret drawer filled with Spanx and other weird and confined underwear, some almost medical, with extremely strong zippers.
That morning, I had ransacked mine for the first time in ever. “Back in the belt,” I said to myself. I turned to Rita as I struggled to become one, and said I hoped her day was going well. She just said, “You’re the first actor I’ve seen in a year.”
Eric crept into the room, turned me to the mirror and put his hands on my hips – the first time this had happened in a long time, too. We looked at myself in a three-sided reflection, and I asked, obediently, if I was now a singer who needed sleeves.
Her task was to find, or create, a dress in which I could sing an evening of film noir-inspired songs – many, intimidating, in French – to a limited audience in person on May 6 for the French Institute Alliance Française. This will be the first time I’ve performed in front of the living since March 2020. Four cameras will be present, for those who are watching virtually, making it a round robin concert, so to speak.
The dress needed to say femme fatale – betrayal! cruelty! Jazz! – while of course covering my arms. No stranger to creating costumes for maturing actresses, Eric projected confidence that the vintage gets better in a form-fitting bottle. I tried to trust him.
Intimacy, humor, and humiliation hung in the air as we quickly tested out a series of stylish Donna Karan dresses that he had put together, all of which were cheated on me in different terrible ways. Then he spoke decisively. “It would just be easier if I made you a brand new dress,” he said, adding kindly, “Angela Bassett ruined everything with her toned arms.”
A psychic encounter
Of all the intimacies of an actor’s life, none is as intimate as that with the costume designer; he is your confessor and also, at times, your co-conspirator.
As a child growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, Eric spoke of tailoring like a violin prodigy speaks of music. He observed his mother and used his paper road money at age 9 to buy clothes patterns.
“I have three brothers – they were very athletic,” he tells me. “One day I realized that on the back of the pattern books in fabric stores there were stuffed animal patterns and Barbie dress patterns. And that was it. I had left for the races. His first triumph was an orange gingham plush dog that he made from a store-bought Simplicity pattern.
Eric studied costume design at Temple University, and after three years working as a resident costume designer at the Grand Opera in Houston, he moved to New York City in 1987, taking a job with Terilynn Costumes. When they closed, Eric decided to start his own costume business when he was only 29 years old.
“I’m rarely the creator, actually,” he explains. “I decided a long time ago that I am much better at interpreting designer sketches than designing myself. And so, I thought that what I could do with sewing was much more useful to the world.
Eric’s bright fitting room in Flatiron District has French doors that open to 8,200 square feet of industrial space, complete with 38 sewing machines and 18 cutting tables, while hundreds of yards of rolled fabric lie on shelves like sacred scrolls. If he is my confessor and the workshop his cathedral, the dressing room is the mirrored apse where the very essence of his profession takes place.
“The dress is made in the dressing room,” Eric tells me, citing designer Jane Greenwood, whom he has worked with many times, and whom I first met when she designed (and he did) the costumes for the Broadway musical “High Society.” (Just over my shoulder, on the back wall, hangs a framed, faded sketch of me as Tracy Lord in my – her! – wedding dress.)
The dressing room itself should be: “This room is 400 square feet, and not just a corner of the room with a curtain. People really need to be comfortable. Eric installed stage lighting on the ceiling a long time ago.
And he understands that a costume fitting is as much a psychic encounter as a physical encounter. “You have to listen to the people,” he says. “What the person wearing the costume sees with their eyes, you have to match through the process of a fitting. You have to change glasses to see what they see. “
Struggle to stay open
Before the pandemic, no less than 15 shows were being prepared in Eric’s store. His studio created Elphaba’s witch robe for “Wicked” (designed by Susan Hilferty) and the blue velvet harem set for the genie in “Aladdin” (designed by Gregg Barnes). He solved the escape costume challenge for Elsa as she belts “Let It Go” in “Frozen”.
Almost 50 full-time employees worked in Eric’s workshop, hailing from the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, the Czech Republic and Russia, among others. Now, however, he works with only a third of his usual team.
He was active in the new costume industry coalition, which raises awareness of the harshness of this sector. Last summer, he even struggled to keep his store open.
“I spent a lot of time in May, last June, driving things in people’s homes, like this ice dress,” he says of a beaded number, intended for a Tokyo production of “Frozen.” . “It had to be hand painted here, then it had to go over there to be beaded, then it had to go to New Jersey to be made.
His staff worked and sewed from home, and he lent his workshop to organizations making PPE; instead of magical robes, they made protective robes. And television work, including HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” has replaced theater.
I felt that one of the reasons Eric was happy to make me a dress was because he saw it as an offering to the gods from the balcony: If I keep making dresses, the song will come back.
During my second fitting a week later, a black sequined dress was placed on my body. I walked in and Rita guided my voluptuous elbows through two sparkling masquerade tunnels. Sleeves!
She put me on in a nearly finished new dress and sat on the floor to look at the hem as Eric walked in to take a look. The look was bosomy without being modern, the neckline inspired by Jane Greer in the 1947 film noir “Out of the Past”. While describing a Parisian bead and sequin boutique he adores called Fried Frères, Eric reached out to me and pinched the fabric, trying to grab it or shorten the sleeves.
After 14 months of lululemons and T-shirts, I had a real costume on my body. It was wonderful to be in a tight, curvy dress with a flirtatious satin sash. I felt like a candy box.
I’m no stranger to cabaret work in rental dresses – there is an app for lightly used dresses for lightly worn actresses – so that feeling was precious. Eric and I looked at each other. The costumer-confessor and the actress-penitent were in a state of hope. Him, because sewing is what he does; her, because despite all the anguish, singing is what she does. This is the irony of the actor’s life: the costume frees us from the insecurities that the need for a costume creates. It’s the actor’s version of infinity – a new look, a new role, a new possibility.
More concretely, I suggested that he could tighten the waist.
“There is no need,” he reminded me. “You have to sing. You have a lot going on in this dress. It’s good like this. I wiggled my hips, with a few “Blame it on Mame” bars. Eric sighed audibly. He moved to the back of the room and turned off the lights. Then he flipped the switch and the stage lights from the ceiling burst into a warm glow.
“This is the magic,” he said. I was dressed.
Melissa Errico is an actress and singer. “Mystery”, her new concert, will take place Thursday at 7 pm at the Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan; stream on fiaf.org.