by Mike Floyd, Costume Director
For this season’s production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, we decided to remake the robe worn by Christmas Present. We wanted to push the finished garment’s theatrical nature. We also needed to make an additional robe to provide a more feasible plan for the role’s understudy. We made this decision right after last season’s production closed.
This is a massive garment. After building the first version of this robe in 2022, we knew it would be a sizable ask for our Tailoring Team to rebuild around all the other projects they had on their plates. Our in-house Costume Design Associate, Erica Griese, and I laid the groundwork to rebuild this garment in March 2023.
The Tailoring Team finished this new garment right before we started tech rehearsals in early November, which means it took us over seven months to complete fully.
That might seem like a lot of time for one robe, so I’d like to walk you through some steps involved in its recreation.
We first bought the green and gold cloqué brocade fabric from a store in New York. Because of the garment’s scale—the leg o’mutton sleeves are by design exaggerated. The robe’s skirt wanted to have a train that would be appropriate for an attention-grabbing entrance at the Met Gala. We bought that store’s remaining 15 yards of fabric back in the summer of 2022. We knew we’d have to find a replacement fabric that was wide enough for the pattern pieces and that could be bought in bulk.
In March 2023, I called a Costume Associate in New York that I’ve worked with in the past and hired her to source additional fabric swatches for this garment. We gave her a lengthy laundry list of fabrics to be on the lookout for. She spent 12 days gathering hundreds of fabric swatches that we could use for any number of outstanding builds.
But we were soon victorious: our New York Associate found the original fabric—in a 20-yard bolt— which was perfect. To make this find even more successful, this new vendor was going to sell us the fabric for much cheaper (a third of the original cost!) This vendor had the original wholesaler’s info, so we could re-order this fabric in the future. Wins all around for us! We bought the remaining yardage (for $475… much cheaper than last year’s $1,275!) and had it shipped to Houston.
Last season, we used a bronze textured fabric for the robe’s lapel. Up close, the detail and pattern of this fabric are quite beautiful, but, once we saw the fabric onstage in the Hubbard Theatre, we quickly realized last season that the fabric’s delicate pattern wasn’t visible to most of the audience. We ended up painting the pattern to give it more depth and texture.
Since rebuilding the robe, we had our NYC Associate looking for a new lapel fabric; we instructed her to find samples in gold that had vibrancy, texture, and life.
Again, our NYC Associate lucked out and found a beautiful gold and black brocade with some metallic threads woven through it. We fell in love with this new fabric when we saw how well it paired with the brocade that would make up the robe’s body. We bought 5 yards of it for a healthy amount for the future, for a total of $350.
Last year, we used 20 yards of a vintage bronze-colored lining fabric that we found in a pile of dead stock fabric in LA… and, yes, it did take all 20 yards. Our New York Associate found a fantastic new fabric that checked off all the right boxes. It had a good weight to support the heft of the robe. Its color picked up some darker gold undertones in the new lapel fabric. Since we wanted to buy enough to cover at least one other future build, we bought 40 yards of this lining. It ended up costing us $1400.
After last season’s performances, we learned it would be essential to add a stabilizing, protective layer of fabric onto the robe’s train. The texture of the stage floor does a number on both the green brocade and the lining fabric. We were surprised how quickly the robe’s hem developed a “well-used and well-loved” appearance. Jerome Schram—the Alley Theatre’s in-house Tailor—had his team build a deep “train protector” out of bronze poly-organza. This will help lessen any damage the floor might do to the robe’s train. We used about 5 yards of the bronze poly-organza this year.
If you’re following along with my numbers journey, you might realize that it takes roughly 41 yards of fashion fabric to build the robe. Some of these fabrics are pretty dense, so it’s not the lightest garment to wear!
Since the garment has a certain amount of heft, Jerome decided we’d need two voluminous petticoats built inside the robe. This helps give its structural silhouette. We contacted Period Corsets in Seattle to streamline the robe’s construction process. We worked with them to construct a petticoat shape that could help support the robe we were creating. We used a black polyester organza to build these petticoats rather than Period Corset’s stock broadcloth; doing that helps us minimize the weight we’re asking the actor to shoulder. It takes almost 15 yards of poly-organza to make one petticoat. I bought thirty yards from a wholesaler in New York for roughly $3/yard.
Again, let’s do the math: adding the fabric for the petticoats, it takes roughly 71 yards to make one robe for Christmas Present.
This season, we ended up spending more than $2300 on fabric for this new Christmas Present Robe.
Gathering the materials to rebuild the robe involved working with people on both coasts (New York and Seattle).
We started hunting for these replacement fabrics in late March 2023, and we finished purchasing the new fabrics in late July. Choosing fabrics is a time-intensive process, especially when working with shops in New York, LA, Seattle, and Houston while seeking approval from Raquel Barreto, the costume designer, based in Austin, Texas.
And all that work had to happen before our Tailoring Team—the previously mentioned Jerome Schram, Maureen Strobel (Assistant Tailor), Emma Frieze (Stitcher), Aurora Kenyon (Costume Technician), and Amy Puente (Costume Technician)—could even start assembling the garment. They began construction in earnest in late July and could only sporadically work on it as they were juggling the costume demands of AMERICAN MARIACHI and LITTLE COMEDIES simultaneously.
Jerome and Maureen worked tirelessly to ensure all the various pattern pieces were cut, thread traced, marked, and exquisitely sewn together. Even though the green and gold fabric pattern, from a distance, seems somewhat organic, it’s a very precise floral pattern. Jerome and Maureen made sure that the pattern-matching was flawless. It might seem like a small detail to brag about, but I think it underscores the attention to detail and exacting standards the members of the Alley Theatre’s Costume Department set for themselves and aim to reach with every project.
We had our first fitting on the new robe—incorporating the new lapel fabric, new lining fabric, Present’s Protective Dust Ruffle, and voluminous black poly-organza petticoats on Friday, September 1st.
After September 1st, with just over two months to schedule costume fittings for the 100+ outfits worn on 38 actors, 5 swings and emergency understudies, and 12 Stage Crew members who are seen in costumes, Jerome, Maureen, Emma, Aurora, and Amy began their intense race to the finish line. Overall, the Tailoring team spent approximately 1824.25 hours building, altering, and repairing all the costumes worn by the male-presenting characters in the show. That averages out to about 45 forty-hour work weeks for the full-team, or about 9 weeks of full-time work per person.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a sizable show for any regional theatre’s Costume Department to remount annually. Incorporating new builds on top of the “remounting work” is certainly a decision that has financial and labor ramifications, and the entire team in the Alley Theatre’s Costume Department continues to prove their commitment to quality and the organization in their drive always to do the best work possible. They know how important this show is to the Houston community, and they feel the weight of that responsibility and do their very best.