Glimpses of Gotham and city characters.
Men and women who deal in fancy costumes.
The business of letting out costumes—and that reminds me that the last one I tried to wear needed considerable letting out—has its peculiar seasons, just as other vocations have. We are now in the ball period of our metropolitan existence, and as the dealer in fantastic habits skips about among his tinseled stock he feels like crying, “On with the dance!” It is just at present that he makes money, or tries to, at least, passing the rest of the year as best he can, buoyed up by the same hope which animates a watering-place hotel keeper.
He is something like such an individual in several of his characteristics; as, for instance, his charges. He endeavors to come as near getting for one night’s use of a domino or dress the price that either would bring, if sold, as is possible. What is the consequence? He is continually selling his entire stock and getting it back for nothing. This fact throws some light also upon his abilitv to skim along so well in the summer. There are costumers and costumers. Men like Lanouette, who furnish the theatres with the dresses for this or that entire play, are at the top of the heap. They have always lots of dresses to hire, but their principal business is to manufacture and sell, out and out. All society ladies number one or more elegant fancy dresses among their toilette collection, and should be capable at any moment of accepting an invitation to a public fancy dress ball or a private masquerade without the slightest embarrassment or anxiety as to what should be worn.
No real bon-ton lady ever hires a grotesque ball dress. You never know, you know, what horrid creature may have worn a costume that is loaned, and to tell the truth my lady is right. You hardly do ever know, you know.
I imagine that the confessions of a fancy ball dress would be racy reading. What a pity they can’t talk.
The humbler class of costumers are over on the East River avenues. Second avenue especially, and are also to be found along the Bowery and on Third avenue. They have the second floor, as a rule, and in one of its windows they stick their sign, a sort of political club transparency affair, with the picture of an unhealthy young courtier on one side, waiting for a shepherdess with a red nose to come around the corner and join him.
When you get up stairs you find an old woman who is deaf, a short counter, and a lot of pawn-shop shelving with bundles on them. In the next room there are four or five girls working away at new suits made out of old. By the judicious use of red velvet, ribbons and laces to match, with a liberal allowance of spangles, you can make a king’s royal rig into a bull-fighter’s magnificent “get-up,” or into anything else for that matter.
There is a sameness about the stock of these people which is simply disgusting. Vivandieres, muleteers, kings, queens, shepherds, fat boys, French courtiers, Paddies, Dutchmen, Indians, etc., etc., are the constantly recurring features.
This year there is a run on “Pinafore,” and no fancy at all will be complete without Little Buttercup, Josephine, Sir Joseph, Dick Deadeye, and the remainder of that crew.
Why is the opera of “Pinafore” like the poor, and, in some cases, the very poor?
Because it is always with us. The costumers will keep its melodious story before the public long after it has ceased to be enacted upon the stage, and in years to come, when I who write and you, who read these lines have been treated like bottles of champagne to the extent of being put on ice—the only difference being that the champagne will possess all the life—costumers will bring down fancy suits, spread them upon the counter, and then say:
“There’s a good Sir Joseph Porter, K. C. B., sir, and as for the lady, what could be more charming than this Josephine?”
“But who was Sir Joseph, and what- Josephine is it?”
“Ah, there you have me. You know I inherited this story and stock from my grandfather, and the names I have just mentioned are on the tickets. Luckily I have a sort of historical catalogue. I may be able to get soma information from it.”
Whereupon the costumer of the future will read as follows: “These are characters in a musical work called “Pinafore,” written by a Mr. Gilbert, of Sullivan street. It ran at twenty New York theatre at once, and during its career all the lunatic asylums had to be provided with extra wings to accommodate the patients made mad by hearing the tunes. The ultimate consequence was that it became a paradox, for although successful it was heartily damned all around. Men became frenzied when their fellows whistled or hummed its tunes, and citizens were wont to fall upon and rend each other in their excess of rage. At last the government interfered, and imposed the penalty of death upon all transgressors. Mr. Gilbert was to have been hanged, but escaped by showing that he had been changed at birth.”
So much for the costumer yet to be heard from. His cousin of to-day is a practical chap, utterly unmoved by his romantic surroundings. This absence of poetry in the composition of a hirer of fancy suits often struck me when I tried to analyze his character and ascertain the motives which led to the choice of business. All that I have met possess no more sentiment than a soap-boiler.
I suppose that in the majority of instances the men and women who take to the trade are former attaches of the theatre. Possibly a grizzled costumer I know was once an actor himself, and began with his own wardrobe as the nucleus of the rather extensive stock he now possesses. It was he who toJd me the following story. I will put it in my own words: About ten years ago a young man climbed up to his place in Forsyth street and asked to be shown some hand some dominos for ladies. He selected an elegant mouse-colored one, lined with white satin, and got a pale blue silk mask additionally.
It was just at dusk. Being the costliest domino in his lot, the costumer asked for a deposit of money to insure its return. The young man willingly complied, and paid for it in advance. There was no ball that night, and the dealer supposed, of course, that it was to be worn at a private party.
Next morning, at about 10 o’clock, a veiled woman came into the shop and asked if a young man, describing the one in question accurately, had dealt there the night previous.
It’s part of the business to lie, and my old acquaintance experienced no trouble in unblushingly remarking that no such person had been in the place.
“I only wanted to see if he had asked you to deny his Visit,” she said, scornfully, “for he was here, he did deal with you, and I now return the goods. You can keep any deposit he may have left.”
Saying which she slammed a small bundle upon the counter and left. The old man was thoroughly dazed at the sudden turn in the conversation, at his discomfiture when he thought he was very smart with his innocent prevarication, and at the visit generally of a woman of whom he could remember nothing beyond her eyes burning like coals back of her veil.
When he recovered his senses he found himself holding the bundle in his hand. He undid it.
The mask was red, with blood, and the domino had ten crimson slashes across the breast.
He still has that costume just as it reached him. There was no murder reported, and he did not hand it over to the police. But he does not loan it. It embodies the one mystery of his life, the telling of which never tires him.
It is hoped that this dancing season, between now and Lent, will be as brilliant as the flurry about Christmas and the revival in trade give us a right to expect. It has been notieable that of late years the so-called masquerades grew meaner and meaner in their grotesque display. This came from the young men about town largely attending each fancy dress ball with simply a nose and a domino. In order to make the floor gay Clodoche troupes of grotesque dancers had to be hired, and even their antics failed to stir the guests upon the floor to any degree of enthusiasm.
If I am to believe those costumers upon whom I called, while writing something about masked balls was upon my mind, the business “boom” will extend even to their out-of-the-way trade. As a matter of fact I notice that several societies that have never done such a thing before announce the bal a la masque. We may confidently expect, then, Terpsichorean festivals at the Academy, Irving Hall, and at the Madison Square Garden which will recall both the Gotham attempts cf ten years ago and the genuine article as witnessed in Paris.
The great trouble is with the police, who have been stupid enough during the last few seasons to obtrude their uniformed presence upon the floor for the purpose of preventing any can-can exhibition.
This is simply absurd. The can-can is never vulgar except when danced by women in long dresses, and it can never hope to reach the licentious effect, under any circumstances, which is so easily obtainable by the waltz.
I am bound to say, however, that I consider masquerade balls immoral institutions. This is more so after the supper hour than before. When a fantastically dressed woman, who has just eaten a few delicious birds and washed them down with champagne, reaches the waxed floor again and is caught in the whirl of the most demoralizing bouffe music, there comes between her and her ideas of propriety a gauze-like curtain, and ten to one she is more lenient to mankind generally, and to her especial escort in particular, than she was before the Innch.
Property people at the theatre have control of any quantity of glittering rubbish, and they sometimes turn an honest penny by loaning a suit here and there to a particular friend. A great many economical pleasure seekers make their own suits, and sonic of the most grotesque have to be constructed in that way. I trouble costumes very little, being content to go in full dress under a domino that cost me 80c. five years ago. I have also a black silk mask that I bought about fifteen years back, and through its eye-holes I have witnessed a vast amount of folly, fun, debauch, immorality, remorse, and all the other elements which go to make up a mammoth hop of the fancy pattern.
The costumers do not depend by any means upon these big dances. If they did they would certainly starve to death, All the Social Clubs and Tea-Rose Assemblies, coteries of young thugs and murderers of whom I have written already in the Gazette, must give their annual masquerade ball in the winter, just as they give a drunken, head-smashing excursion to Iona Island or Far Rockaway in the summer.
They have their costumer, and some of the dresses he turns outdo credit to his taste. These fellows all aspire to silk stockings and small swords, and such a lot of French courtiers, with close-cropped hair and prison faces, can never be seen outside of Walhalla or Pythagoras Halls.
Then there are any quantity of private masquerades. The patrons of these are furnished largely by the costumers, as are the members of the various amateur theatrical associations who give a performance at a place like Terrace Garden Theatre, and then a ball after. The country for miles around is furnished with fancy dresses by New York costumers. Sometimes they fit out “snap” theatrical organizations, but it is an awful risk. Many a Claude Melnotte or a Romeo has been forced to spout his dress in order to get home, and when such is the case, or where the trunks have been seized by a rapacious landlord, the costumer is sure to bid farewell to every suit, and wipe his weeping eyes.
Colonel Mapleson, of “Her Majesty’s,” owns his own costumes. When the troupe go over to Brooklyn to sing, the huge boxes that have to be taken along remind one of the moving of an army baggage train.
All the opera-bouffe dresses in this country are owned by Maurice Grau, and whether he produces the operas himself or not, it is he who furnishes the grotesque rigs in which the heroes and heroines of Offenbach and Lecocq are wont to array themselves.
I will tell you, as I close, why I never go to a ball in full fancy dress.
I was very young and tender when I attended a masquerade disguised as a Sicilian bandit. I danced, I ate, I drank, I had a jolly time. It must have been 4 o’clock in the morning when I got to my boarding house in Seventh avenue.
Then I discovered that my room had been entered, as had several, my trunk rifled and every article of clothing stolen save a linen suit. This was in February.
For one solid week I was a Sicilian bandit, imprisoned in my room. It took my tailor a day to decide whether he could trust me, and six more to make a suit from my old measurement. I couldn’t send the bandit suit home, because there might have been a fire, and I wanted something to escape in. Better a Sicilian bandit in February than a Zulu on Greenland. The consequence was that my hire of the fancy clothes was in excess of the price of my new ones and when I did throw off the gay robber mien and appear in civilization once more it was with the intention of getting even somehow if I had to commit murder.
Source: Glimpses of Gotham and city characters by Samuel Anderson Mackeever, 1848. Published at the National Police Gazette Office, New York, 1881.