A backstage visitor to Phantom of the Opera wants to know about the chandelier and to King Kong about the giant ape. But what piques the curiosity of visitors backstage at My Fair Lady? According to Patrick Bevilacqua, the show’s wardrobe supervisor, it’s the headgear. “This is a show about hats. When people come back after a performance they are fascinated by them.” He spoke to me in his workroom backstage during a My Fair Lady matinee as the cast upstairs was performing, appropriately, the show’s most brilliant display of millinery: Ascot.
Most of the production’s 100 or so extravagant toppers, all designed or chosen by costume designer Catherine (Cathy) Zuber, are kept on racks in the backstage hallways of the Beaumont. “When people see this millinery up close,” Bevilacqua said, “they are amazed at how subtle the colors are. A hat may have not just one grey ostrich feather; the feather or feathers may be grey and light lavender and cream. Cathy is a genius at mixing all the hues.”
Bevilacqua named all the places the hats were made. The Ascot hats were done in Germany, ensemble hats by Arnold Levine in Manhattan, and the principal hats made by Broadway’s premiere millinery, Rodney Gordon, who is based in Long Island City. While the making interested me, the care of the hats – a century ago and now -- REALLY interested me.
At the time of My Fair Lady, Ascot-attending women would have had maids to maintain their hats. What about everybody else? “In those days,” Bevilacqua said, “there were milliners on every block. If you couldn’t afford a maid you would take your hats to the milliner, who would refresh them.”
Moving his focus to 2019, Bevilacqua explained that a dresser or day worker cleans the brim of every one of the show’s hats every day. “We use Wet Ones or something to take off the make-up and the sweat. A lot of the hats have feathers and we steam out and brush the feathers about three times a week. The feathers are ostrich and vulture and peacock and pheasant. A lot of wonderful birds contributed to this show. Nothing endangered, though.”
A history major in college, Bevilacqua inserted a relevant fact here. “There was a law passed just before the First World War to protect birds. We lost species because we were putting whole birds on hats. People realized: there are no egrets left because we’re using them all to make hats.”
The men’s hats, which comprise about a quarter of the production’s total, are less feathery and frilly. “They get a lot of brushing with a soft bristle brush and steaming to keep them fresh.” No hat is touched by human hands. “Our hands have a lot of oil on them,” Bevilacqua said. “So we handle things wearing white-cotton gloves or latex gloves.”
Which hat in the show requires the most maintenance? “Mrs. Higgins’s Ascot hat,” Bevilacqua said, “certainly requires a lot of care. It’s got ostrich feathers and silk bows and vintage ribbons. It takes a lot to keep it looking beautiful.”
When the production began, this hat was worn by Dame Diana Rigg. It was scaled down slightly when the role was taken over by Rosemary Harris. An essential tool for re-doing a hat or any other part of a costume is the reference system of hanging swatches on display in Bevilacqua’s workspace.
“When we buy fabrics from one of the dresses or suits we’re making,” Bevilacqua said, “we take a long piece of it off the bolt. We staple it to a card for reference so we know where it came from, how many yards of fabric were used, who they were used for. We keep reference for every trim, every button, every bead.”
“Without this reference system,” Bevilacqua went on, “we would have to send someone out to find that specific fabric or frill and they could spend days trying. My Fair Lady is a show about hats – but it’s also a show about fabric references.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com