SOMERVILLE — Every October, Liz Perlman has to turn away the Halloween shoppers.
The phone calls multiply as the costume parties approach. A few especially determined shoppers find their way to the inconspicuous brick building on a side street in Somerville, only to learn that there are no ready-to-wear costumes to be found. Costume Works, the business Perlman has run since 1996, doesn’t sell synthetic wigs, fake blood, or pre-packaged polyester garb.
Behind the grated windows is a powerhouse of custom costume-making, where craftspeople make elaborate, often fantastical creations that can cost thousands of dollars each for theater, opera, dance, and other companies in the Boston area and across the country.
Costume Works operates out of a former railway siding warehouse, nestled between the McGrath Highway and commuter-rail tracks. Inside the 3,500-square-foot structure, a dozen people cut precise shapes of fabric by hand, perfecting the details at sewing machines and on dress forms. A dense thicket of paper cutouts — more than 20 years’ worth of garment patterns — looms over the central work area. Meanwhile the shelves boast an impressive inventory of fabrics: drab materials for costuming peasant characters, sumptuous brocades for dressing princesses, and every color and texture in between. Buttons, spools of thread, and corset “bones” are stored onsite. The labels on the inventory tease a stockpile of stories: A single shelf holds patterns for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and 18th-century menswear. One bin is ominously marked “Villains souls.”
In a back room, six nude-colored bodysuits, designed to simulate a potbelly and thick haunches, hang on a rack like synthetic rotisserie chickens. The actors who wear them tend to be “young and in great shape,” Perlman says, “so they kind of beef them up.”
By “they,” Perlman means Disney, Costume Works’ biggest client. Around half of the shop’s work comes from Disney commissions, by Perlman’s estimate. Many of those commissions are destined to traverse the ocean on Disney Cruise Line vessels. The hand-sewn fatsuits correspond to just one character in the “Frozen” musical adaptation staged on the Disney ships. Perlman explains that Disney ordered eight versions of the costume: Two for the full-time actor, two for the understudy, and extras to have on hand, since the cast rotates every six months.
Other clients have included some of the biggest Boston-area companies — American Repertory Theater, Boston Ballet, Boston Lyric Opera — as well as the Museum of Science and institutions as far flung as the Big Apple Circus and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
“I like that we can do something for a drag queen in the morning and do something for the opera in the afternoon,” Perlman says.
The variety and volume of assignments is a privilege afforded by the business’s independence — and its status as the only independent custom costume shop in Boston.
A handful of local arts institutions have in-house costume shops, but even these might enlist Costume Works for big jobs. Boston Ballet, for example, has a costume department that includes drapers, stitchers, a master dyer, and a shoe mistress, but it still contracts Costume Works to create costumes for major story ballets like “Swan Lake.” Howard Merlin, the costume shop and footwear coordinator at Boston Ballet, says it’s “hard to find people who have the knowledge” to make dance costumes. “Liz would be the first person I would go to to do any outside work in Boston,” he says.
But Costume Works frequently works with clients outside the Boston area, in part because the expert costuming world is a small one.
“We often laugh and say there’s really only 40 of us in this profession,” says Deborah Shippee, costume director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., who used to work at the Huntington Theatre Company and is now a Costume Works client.
Another factor is the sheer scale of demand. This summer, Shippee needs around 416 costumes for Glimmerglass’s six shows. She employs a team of 50 in the costume shop, but has still hired some contractors, including Costume Works, to get the job done within six to eight weeks. Costume Works is “able to fulfill large groups of things in a hurry,” she says.
Sometimes costume designers hired by theater companies specifically request to have costumes fabricated by Costume Works, Shippee says. “Having Costume Works in our mix, with their good reputation, allows us to attract better designers,” says Esther Nelson, Boston Lyric Opera’s general and artistic director, in an e-mail.
Mariann Verheyen, a costume designer who teaches at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, describes Costume Works as “a major reason there are good costumes in Boston.” She adds, “Where else would some of those theaters go?”
Perlman describes the founding of her business as the “world’s easiest startup.” After a long stint in the costume shop at the ART, she began to freelance for Sonnenberg Studios, which she calls “the predecessor to this business.” When the company’s namesake, Craig Sonnenberg, decided to close his business, “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she recalls. She approached four Sonnenberg clients — Boston Lyric Opera, the Hasty Pudding, Chamber Theatre Productions , and Revels — and asked if they would commit to working with her if she opened a similar venture. They agreed, and Costume Works was born.
Perlman’s lucky streak continued when Verheyen soon helped Costume Works land its first Disney Cruise Line commission. The show was called “Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” and Disney needed costumes for the titular ghost pirates. “They were women dressed as swashbuckling men,” Perlman explains.
That commission snowballed as Disney “added ships and cast and shows,” Perlman says. “It has really been a surprisingly fantastic amount of work.”
Perlman prices costumes by estimating the number of hours needed to create a pattern, cut the fabric, assemble the parts, fit the pieces, and make necessary adjustments. A single opera costume for Glimmerglass took about 100 hours and cost $2,400, for example.
The most expensive project? A pair of costumes for Disney’s nighttime “Rivers of Light” spectacle. Perlman says the costumes, which had to fit on top of personal flotation devices, took about 1,300 hours to fabricate over several months, including beading and surface decor. They cost about $35,000.
The warehouse is quiet — a lot quieter than it used to be, according to Lynn Jeffery, who has been at Costume Works since 2000. Some employees work with headphones on, and many of the sewing machines are new models with silent motors.
There’s a camaraderie among the women who work in the shop; Perlman estimates that among the dozens of people she has employed, around five have been men. A few current staffers, like Therese Beck and Heidi Hermiller, have been with Costume Works since the first few years of its existence.
As she stitches together one of the pot-bellied bodysuits for the Disney cruise, Jeffery emphasizes that she is “just the maker” of the object. “I’m really working off the designer’s sketch,” Jeffery says, but she still has her own creative decisions to make. “For something like this, I’m thinking, ‘Where does the fat really lie? Where do the muscles lie? The cheeks?’ ”
Such attention to detail is at the heart of what Costume Works does. For example, the Christmas Revels show features about 100 performers, some of them in three or four different costumes, and “every single costume piece has a person’s name on it,” according to Revels operations director Lynda Johnson.
The mockup process alone — patterning and creating a version of the final costume in a cheap fabric — can take several days.
“It’s not the same as home sewing,” Perlman says. “The costume does more than what your normal clothes do.”
A costume might be hyper-customized to fit a single person in a single show, or it might need to be adjustable for several wearers. Ballet costumes need to stretch in all the right places, costumes for a theme park need to handle extensive sun exposure, and costumes with lights in them have fire protection standards.
But onstage drama and fantasy are far from the everyday life of employees, who speak about their work without histrionics. They say the process of making a costume come together makes the job satisfying.
“I like the engineering challenges of making something fit and look like somebody else’s sketch,” says Perlman. “I like, towards the end, when something is close to being together and you can really make it right.”
Jeffery says, “I love getting to work with my hands and seeing the direct result of what I did today.” Getting to see the final product in a performance, she says, is an “added bonus.”