Welcome back! In this second segment of my Sew-iversary series, I’ll share about the various ways I was employed before going solo.
While putting together Pt 1 Academics, I predicted Pt 2 would be a quick post. I didn’t remember having many photos from my Employment Era. But after poking around and digging deep into the Archives, I found a bonanza! While only sharing some highlights, this blog post may have more photos than any blog post ever created by anyone in the history of blog posts! It is basically a brand new (wildly outdated) digital portfolio!
Jobs between or during Academics
I ended Pt 1 Academics flipping through my old analog Portfolio. During my Academic Years, I did a lot of costuming work for professional theatre, but I also had a couple of unusual summer jobs and side hustles.
Return to Savage Beach
During the summer of 1997, after graduating from Centenary College and before moving to start my costuming internship at Yale, I worked on a movie! Shreveport filmmaker Andy Sidaris made a series of action films featuring Penthouse and Playboy Playmates as stars. For his final film “Return to Savage Beach’, I was employed as the “costume assistant”, which basically means I was on-set helping everyone get dressed.
The show’s biggest star was Julie Strain, 1993 Penthouse Pet Of The Year and “Queen of the B-Movies”. She was 6’1” without the hair and heels. (I’m 4’11” in my Birkenstocks). At the time, Julie was married to Kevin Eastman, co-creator of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, who also had a part in the movie. She was a really nice person who sadly passed away last year after long-term complications from a horse riding accident.
And then pretty much right after that B-movie wrapped, I started working and taking classes at Yale followed by UNC (see previous post). Both of these academic programs were extremely labor-intensive, brainpower-intensive, and demanded all of your time and attention.
The Inside Scoop
Especially at UNC, working all-nighters on shows and homework was pretty much expected. During my second or third semester, I figured out that I wasn’t going to survive this program without an outlet. I needed something totally different to do with my time- at least a few hours a week.
In secret, so that my professors didn’t think I didn’t have enough work to do, I got a job at the local homemade ice cream shop. It was one of those places where the staff wears wacky hats while smashing and tossing your treats.
Since I was so short compared to the counter height, I was having a hard time doing cool underhand throws like my taller coworkers. So I started wearing roller skates to work! It offered me a little more height and a lot more fun. I moonlighted as a “Super-Secret Roller-Skating Ice-Cream-Scooping Pirate” about twice a week for almost 3 years as I completed my MFA in Costume Production.
Costumes and Creatures
Then in the summer, between grad school semesters, I got a job at Costumes and Creatures in downtown Minneapolis, which created some of the large Jim Henson’s Muppet characters worn by actors in costumes (instead of puppets). I worked in the Heads and Tails department, mostly on big Sesame Street characters.
I made Big Bird’s tail!
I also made these heads for Sesame Street Live! and this puppet for some sort of Aladdin production. (The pupils are the final step.)
It was a really fun summer job, especially since this was only a few years after I first learned to sew. Not too many people can say they have officially licensed Cookie Monster fur in their Portfolio!
New York City /Lynne Mackey Studio
At the end of “My 26th Sew-iversary! pt 1 Academics”, I was flipping through the pages of my Portfolio from 2002. That summer, with no job and no place to live, I moved to New York City. Though the resume at the front of my Portfolio lists the address of my friend’s Brooklyn apartment, I only lived there (in her boiler room) for five days before a found my own sublet in Queens. Two days before that, I landed my dream job.
Not knowing where to start looking for work, I visited my grad school professor Judy Adamson, who was working at Barbara Matera’s costuming workshop. The place was incredible. It was a huge space buzzing with talented craftspeople cutting, draping, beading, stitching, and creating couture custom costumes for Broadway, ballet, TV and film.
I showed Judy my Portfolio and she yelled out to the room “Anyone know of anyone who is hiring?”
Someone yelled back “Lynne Mackey is looking for a milliner!”.
I love millinery. Judy looked at me and said “Go call her right now.”
“Right now?”, I said.
“Right now”, she said.
Surrounded by production posters in Barbara Matera’s colorful little office, I called Lynne Mackey Studio.
“This is Lynne”, I heard through the phone.
“Hi Lynne! My name is Brooks Ann and I hear you are looking for a milliner.”, I said.
She said “Yes! Come over right now.”
“Right now?”, I said.
“Right now.”, she said.
So, with my Portfolio in hand, I visited Lynne Mackey Studio right then. This was a smaller shop but no less magical. I was in love with the space and the energy. Every nook and cranny was filled with boxes and blocks and beautiful baubles.
Lynne flipped through my Portfolio pages and said “Great! Can you start right now?”
“Right now?” I said.
“Right now.” she said.
And I worked for Lynne, who is now a dear friend, exclusively for my entire stay in New York.
My very first millinery projects were for a production of “Aladdin” at Disneyworld. We draped turbans onto firm felt hoods that we custom shaped to match each actor’s head. With the turbans wrapped onto the bases, they’d be secure when performing, but also easy to quickly get on and off while looking flawless.
The show opened right around my birthday. Lynne (seated lower left) got us all hats at Disney and made me a birthday cake.
Mamma Mia! (Broadway)
I also made a lot of hats for “Mamma Mia!” So much “Mamma Mia!”…
When I arrived in New York in 2002, Mamma Mia! was already a big hit. So I didn’t work on the original production, but we were constantly making new hats as replacements and for tours.
Though I’m now known for my custom wedding ensembles, the first wedding veils I made were for Mamma Mia! on Broadway.
Sinatra. His Voice. His World. His Way. (Rockettes)
I also made some wedding veils for the Rockettes!
We made custom millinery their “Christmas Spectacular” every year, and we also made the Rockettes’ headpieces in a special Frank Sinatra retrospective (where Frank appeared onstage as a hologram!).
Dance of the Vampires (Broadway)
The first new Broadway show I worked on was one of Broadway’s biggest flops! “Dance of the Vampires” only lasted 6 weeks. And I got to see it. Twice!
The people who work behind the scenes on theatrical productions are often invited to watch the show as a “preview audience” before opening night. When we all saw the preview for “Dance of the Vampires”, the show was undeniably terrible. But I personally thought it was hilariously terrible. Lynne gave me her Opening Night ticket. She couldn’t bear to see it again.
This article titled “’Within Fifteen Minutes, It Became Unbearable’ The bloody Broadway mess that was Dance of the Vampires” tells all the wild details about the show’s tragic demise.
Phantom of the Opera’s Micheal Crawford was the lead vampire and star of the show. I didn’t make a hat for him, but I did make one for his co-star René Auberjonois, who is arguably more famous and almost certainly more pleasant.
And here’s some other vampire looks I worked on!
The biggest hit I worked on as a new Broadway show was Wicked! I worked on the original production with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth!
And lots of crazy hats for the chorus and other characters.
I was thrilled to find these mockup fitting photos and studio shots of the finished hats. Pretty wicked, right?
Fiddler on the Roof (Broadway revival)
As part of a dance number, actors had to balance bottles on top of their hats. It was fun to figure out how to engineer the hats to help them successfully stay put through the balancing act!
Gypsy (Broadway revival)
I also had the pleasure of working on the Broadway revival of “Gypsy”.
I couldn’t believe it when I was tasked to make hats for Bernadette Peters. I’ve loved her since I was a kid!
It was a beautiful show (filled with beautiful hats)!
Carnival of Animals (New York City Ballet)
I can’t believe I got to make him a nurse’s cap to wear while dressed as an elephant in the New York City Ballet’s production of “Carnival of Animals”, based on a children’s book that he wrote! Here’s a review of the show.
For Halloween in 1983, I dressed up as Boy George. In 2003, I made Boy George a hat! And a lot of other hats for “Taboo”, the Broadway show about his life.
Sly Fox (Broadway)
The most star-studded show I worked on may have been a play called “Sly Fox”. We made hats for Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Berkley (who I’d also dressed up as for Halloween), Eric Stoltz, Rachel York, Bronson Pinchot, and again for René Auberjonois!
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
We made creative pieces for lots of other kinds of theatrical productions too, like these hats for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I’m pretty sure the pony-tail pieces were worn while the performer was spinning upside down.
WrestleMania XX (Return of the Undertaker)
But I think the most famous hat I ever made debuted at WrestleMania XX. In 2004, the Undertaker was making a return to the ring with a new look and a new hat made by me!
He’s 6’10” and I’m 4’11”. Lynne did his fitting, even though I really wanted to do it. For me to fit his hat, I would need a ladder and/or he would need to sit on the floor!
And so much more....
I also made a lot of other hats that got photographed and a lot of other hats that didn’t with the lovely Lynne Mackey and a small team of talented artisans.
Sounds amazing right?! And it was. And I loved it.
And it broke me. Physically and financially…
Broadway tickets can only go so high in price. No matter how skilled the artisan, by the time that money trickles down to the person who made the hat, there’s not much left. Living in New York City, even when sharing a 430sf apartment 10-blocks past the last stop on the N train in Queens, is super expensive.
And millinery requires a lot from your body. So does simply living in New York City. And theatre is so fast-paced! So is New York City!
And these work hand in hand. The fast-paced nature demands more physical strain to make enough money to continue the cycle…
And I had quickly reached the pinnacle! I felt like I was at the top! There wasn’t really anywhere higher in this career that I wanted to go. In 5 years, I went from having zero experience to sewing for celebrities. I did it! And I did it for years!
So why keep doing it? Would I be gaining a longer list of celebrities names to drop at the expense of my health and my bank account?
Meanwhile, a love story was happening too! In grad school at UNC, I met Charles. He was an undergrad theatre major and also worked at the ice cream shop.
And now he was living in that 430sf Queens apartment with me! In New York, we had a lot of fun with a lot of our friends, but we eventually decided to leave The Big Apple in search of a smaller apple. We had big dreams of getting a house… and a dog… and some rest…
Back to NC
Charles and I moved back to North Carolina with empty pockets and broken bodies. Time for a fresh new start! I left theatre and pretty much quit sewing too.
I got a job at a nearby diner. Charles worked at the local hardware store across the street.
One day, I found an ad in the local paper for a woodworking job. It was for an artisan of one-of-a-kind museum quality picture frames. I showed it to Charles thinking it would be right up his alley.
But Charles thought that it sounded perfect for me.
I got the job.
So I ended up employed as another type of custom one-of-a kind craftsperson that got me back to my woodworking roots from my scene shop days! But this time, really fancy.
On the job, I learned all kinds of traditional woodworking techniques, including hand carving and water gilding with real gold and silver. Each frame was created with a specific piece of art as the inspiration. A single artisan would start with raw wood, carve custom designs, gesso and sand by hand, gild with common or precious metals, create and add custom patinas…
You can still watch a slideshow of me making a frame from start to finish on the company’s website.
The work really suited me because I loved creating something by myself from start to finish. It was reminiscent of my professor handing me a dress sketch and giving her a dress; I’d get a card with a frame order and I’d go pick out some raw wood and eventually turn in the fancy finished frame ready for the customer.
I made a lot of fancy frames for a lot of important pieces of art. My most famous frame is probably the one I made for the official portrait of former Governor Bev Perdue, which hangs in the North Carolina Governor’s mansion.
Learn more about my framemaking era of employment in my blog post from 2014 “Retrospective: My years as a custom picture frame craftsman”
The frame business was in Hillsborough, North Carolina, housed in a former Cone Denim mill built in 1897.
Not long after I started the frame job, we bought and started renovating one of the little Hillsborough mill houses, originally built for the workers in the mill. We moved in. We got a dog. We slowed down.
No theatre. No sewing.
I never got back into theatre or costuming. But I did slowly get pulled back into sewing. One wedding dress at a time…
Almost exactly a year after I began my employment as a custom framemaker, Charles’s sister Katie got engaged in front of the whole family at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I was so surprised and excited that, without much thought, I offered to make her wedding dress.
So 1/4 of our 800sf house became a sewing room…
…and I made this delicious bias cut silk charmeuse wedding dress for Katie (and my own custom dress). Click to read my blog post all about making Katie’s wedding dress. It was good to be back to sewing!
Well, another thing I forgot to think about when offering to make Katie’s wedding dress is that Charles has another sister!
Not long after Katie’s wedding, their sister Melissa got engaged. I enjoyed the experience working with Katie, so I offered to make her a dress too. Melissa was 6 months pregnant on her wedding day, so I got to play around with maternity sewing! Click to read my blog post all about making Melissa wedding dress.
Then Charles and I got engaged and (of course) I made my own wedding dress. Click to read my blog post all about making my own wedding dress!
Ya’ll. I had so much fun designing and creating these dresses!
Up until now, sewing had never been a hobby for me. I had only ever sewn in professional workrooms. Crafting these wedding dresses was pretty much the first time I had ever sewn anything totally solo. A teacher wasn’t going to grade it; it didn’t need to be approved by the boss. I didn’t need to communicate with anyone on a team.
This time, my process wasn’t dictated by anything other than the project in front of me. I had total freedom in what I could make and in how I wanted to make it.
As most sewing people learn, there’s a bazillion ways to accomplish the same goals. For example, the way we marked and cut fabric at Yale was very different than the way I was taught to mark and cut fabrics while working through my graduate degree (and I’d learn later that each were very different from the way home sewists mark and cut fabric.) I loved the marking and cutting process at Yale. I hated the marking and cutting process at UNC. But in a professional setting, you rarely get to choose based on your own enjoyment. When you work with a team, everyone needs to work the same way.
But when you sew solo, you can do whatever you want!
As I worked on these dresses, I was able to slowly take what I had learned via my Ivy League and Masters degree education and play around to figure out my own sewing style.
But by this point in my sewing story, it had been several years since I had created a custom garment. Especially one using the processes I learned (and loved) during the one year I was at Yale. So in a lot of ways I had forgotten a lot of what I had learned, but in a lot of ways forgetting also helped me to freely mix methods and create my own style. I had a solid foundation of knowledge and skill, but with a new sense of curiosity and experimentation, while questioning all I had learned. Totally free of professors and employers and external influence, I was able to develop my own methods based purely on my own personal enjoyment.
My custom sewing students often laugh at me because I’m always declaring something different as my favorite step. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself…
One Wedding Leads to the Next
In the next post of my Sew-iversary blog series, we’ll pick back up at my own wedding! My friend Jonathan brought a new girlfriend as his +1. Unknowingly, Leah would be the next person to alter the trajectory of my sewing story.
NEXT POST: Pt 3 Entrepreneurship! I become a couturier of custom wedding dresses and a custom sewing educator teaching other “solo sewists” how to develop their own sewing style!