Recently I met with a renowned couture designer about recreating a modern version of Adelaide Herrmann’s costume from her Billiard Balls act. The project is very exciting – and also expensive, because it will include the elaborate beading that Adelaide’s costumes were famous for. (To make it affordable, the beading will be done in India.) Although we only have black & white photos, the fabrics and colors of many of Adelaide’s costumes were described in newspapers’ fashion pages, and many women went to her shows as much to see her glorious costumes as her magic.
My designer reminded me of the challenges Adelaide faced in the construction of her costumes. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they had no zippers or snaps, just hooks & eyes and buttons. No elastic either; nothing stretchy. There were no synthetic fabrics – only wool, cotton, linen and silk. And no dry cleaning. Heavy beaded costumes were not washable and would have been mighty rank by the end of a tour. (People weren’t that washable then, either.) With constant travel and performances, these costumes would have taken a beating, requiring constant maintenance. Beads tend to come loose and fall off. Her costumes were also heavily boned (with whalebone sewn into vertical channels), and boning tends to wear through fabric, requiring frequent repair.
By Adelaide’s time, there were foot pedal-operated sewing machines. Although I’ve found no mention of it, I’m certain she would have traveled with one. But that would have been for big jobs. Sewing beads and other minor repairs must been done by hand.
I’ve also found no mention of Adelaide Herrmann sitting in train cars and hotel rooms repairing and re-beading costumes, but that’s the unglamorous drudgework which no performer wants to highlight. Because what the audience must see is not a dirty, stinky constantly-repaired garment but rather a magnificent, sparkling gown of pure magic.