March 1, 2009

Racine costumes earn spotlight at opera, Broadway

Kitty Schweitzer with an elaborate dress and leather armor

Something from Racine will be center stage when the curtain goes up tonight -- opening night! -- as Chicago's Lyric Opera presents Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio.

Just as there's a part of Racine onstage during performances of Broadway's new hit, Shrek, the Musical.

And in a bunch of movies like The Untouchables.

It all comes from one barely noticeable storefront on Main Street, the home of Seams Unlimited, a costume maker run by Kitty Schweitzer and her six stitchers. Together they dress actors, singers and dancers who perform at some of the best "houses" in the country.

Schweitzer was contentedly making costume patterns Sunday afternoon, still excited by the "field trip" she and her staff -- which included two "opera virgins" -- took Friday to watch the final dress rehearsal of Seraglio. "It was just beautiful," she said -- describing the set, the performers, the music. "I'm not just saying that because we did the costumes." Seams Unlimited produced costumes for 41 Janissaries, 12 harem girls, six guards and three Turkish women.

For Shrek the Musical, which opened on Broadway in December, they had to make 30 sets of clothes in just eight days, thanks to a delay in the arrival of fabric from the show's designer and a last-minute change in the date of the show's first fitting. "I swear, I lost 15 pounds that week," Kitty says, noting that all jobs are not that stressful. For regional opera and theatre, the expectations are lower, "and it's fun again." Unlike the Met and the Lyric and Broadway...

Costume-making has been part of Kitty Schweitzer's life since she was very young. She remembers the nuns in Catholic school thinking she was daydreaming. Actually, she was realizing that she could look at someone's clothes -- the nuns' habits in this case -- and figure out how to make a pattern to recreate any outfit. She made patterns before sewing clothes for her dolls.

She became a professional costumer by accident. "While at Carthage College studying to be a primary school teacher, I was given a tour of the theater," she recalls, "and I let slip that I could make patterns. The designer said, 'Do you want tuition aid?' I thought that was a trick question, and I've been a cutter ever since."

It turns out, being able to make patterns is an unusual skill -- and a necessary one. "You can't go to the fabric store and find pattens for any of these; there are no computer programs," Kitty says, pointing to costume renderings and finished costumes. She has pattern-making journals from the 16th Century; "It's done today the same way it was done then."

Stitchers Jean Golwitzer and Emily Moser with Tale of Two Cities
costumes; alas, the Broadway show lasted only 93 performances.

Costumes also have to be incredibly versatile: able to fit a wide range of sizes, up or down. "We give it a tailored look, but with 4" to 6" seams, allowing costumes to be easily altered. The costume may be made for a guy who's a size 44, 6'2", who is then replaced by someone who's a size 36, built like a boy." Costumes must be "ultra-adjustable and ultra-durable," she says, noting that Broadway plays are performed nine times a week and many run for a year -- and hopefully longer.

There's another aspect to the job of costumer that makes everything interesting: Kitty rarely meets the actors the costumes are made for. "I cut for people I've never met and never will," she says, noting that big stars' contracts specify how much pay they get per fitting. "You get just an hour of their time. Literally, they just put it on and it fits. That's when you say, 'Damn, I'm good!' " she says with a laugh. Furthermore, "We're known for being able to do multiples," she says -- for example, dressing every member of the Lyric's harem.

Making costumes takes a host of careful measurements; height, waist and chest size don't begin to tell the story. She starts with pages of detailed measurements taken from each of the performers, all carefully entered side-by-side on a hand-written charts. "I always laugh when somebody sends back that she's a size 8," she says. After making a pattern for the "master" costume of a multiple, she then refers to each of the performers' measurements in turn, to add an inch here, subtract an inch there -- eyeballing as she goes -- as she cuts each subsequent pattern piece, which she then carefully labels with the relevant measurements.

"The system I primarily use is drafting -- math. You can do that blind." And that's the chief difference between the two philosophies of costume-making: Drafting vs. Draping. "You don't need the person in front of you until the final fitting."

Which is a good thing, because many of the costumes made for one set of performers then move on to yet another opera house. It costs several hundred thousand dollars to prepare sets and costumes for a major opera, Kitty says, and the goal is, "Make it affordable, otherwise you'd never be able to do grand opera." Her Seraglio costumes will travel from Chicago to San Francisco... and who knows where after that. "Opera houses engage in smart shopping; they're very frugal," she says.

For the Met's Damnation of Faust, for example, Kitty and her crew made 112 sets of clothes -- all in basic black. "So many operas were written in the same time period, a lot in the 16th Century." Her costumes, in other words, may have a life of their own in still other operas. That's a good thing, considering the cost -- up to $3,500 for a lightly beaded evening dress. "Costumes made for an opera star in New York -- $15,000," she says. "People in New York and Chicago think my prices are insanely reasonable," Kitty says. "But if the Racine Theatre Guild called, they'd pass out!"

Dress dummies have names, but no personality

Tremendous variety comes from Seams Unlimited's 401 Main St. storefront. For the Met's Faust, they dressed eight devils, and 24 members of the chorus. A wonderful set of deer-antler hats, among other costumes, was made for Cincinnati's Elmer Gantry. They dressed all the children and the opening number of Shrek the Musical, all the bad guys in Pirate Queen, and some of the actors in Gypsy with Patti LuPone. The chorus in Grease is outfitted in material that Kitty's stitchers put together from 4,000 yards of ribbon and 30 yards of fabric supplied by the show's designer "who got into a crunch" when he couldn't find exactly what he wanted.

She hasn't worked on movies for a while, because filming is a 24/7 operation. "Films suck all the life out of you; you're at the beck and call of the production company night and day," she said. "After I had kids, I couldn't live that way." But while she did it, she made costumes for many movies filmed in Chicago. The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Uncle Buck and Flatliners are a few of the names she rattles off. Her son, she notes, used to tell playmates, "My mom was pregnant with me when she worked on The Untouchables." An an infant, he had a quilt she made from shirt cuffs discarded when the production wrapped.

Kitty worked at the Lyric Opera for 15 years, as a cutter and a stitcher. "They do their own alterations," she says, "and they have a lot of 'emergencies.' I have stories, but I'm not telling tales out of school." In 1995, she went off on her own by establishing Seams Unlimited in the Third Ward in Milwaukee. She moved from Wausau to Racine five years ago, drawn both by the lake and the high quality of Racine Unified's orchestra program for her daughter Rose, 10, who plays the viola, and her son Alex, 21, "who's in love with the cello," and is studying music at Columbia College in Chicago.

"My track record was built very slowly," she says. "The Lyric knew me, but there were designers very reluctant to try me. I got my foot in the door in New York, but there are no second chances in this business. If you don't have costumes on the stage at the first dress rehearsal, you get sued. Blow one deadline and it's over."

Most of the major costume makers are in New York, or other big cities, but show designers are learning about Seams Unlimited, which has done costumes for more than 80 different shows. "My clients tease me about Racine," Kitty says. "They all know where Racine is now. I had a client who called saying she had to be in Oklahoma, wondering 'if that's anywhere close...' "


  1. This great lady rocks hard. A fantastic business to have in Racine.

  2. I always wondered what the story on that place was.

  3. Kitty is a good example of the type of business that KRM would attract to Racine.

  4. Souvari

    Sure it would I can see it now lets wake up two hours earlier so I can jump the bus to catch a train to jump another bus...
    And I will be the only one on!
    Opening up property tax bill.... "What up again!!"

    Please be sober when you post

  5. I'll drive the short distance to the station, park my car for the day, catch the train into Milwaukee where my company has a shuttle to the office. I'll prepare my schedule, appointments and stuff I have to do while on the train to work, and will finalize everything on the way Home. I increase my production in the office and I reduce my time on the road thus reducing the costs associated with that. Not only to my family but to the world.

    That's just one scenario, I could go on and on.

    It's been happening all over the world for decades.

    Shape the future, don't let it shape you!

  6. 4:09

    what fantasy world do you live in?

  7. 4:09

    what fantasy world do you live in?

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Why must every story's comments turn into profanity and political argument. People, shape up or I'll sic Faust on you.

  10. Thank you, Pete. Back to the subject - Kitty Schweitzer also makes world-class mead, hard cider, beer, wine, cheesecake, etc as a member of the Belle City Brewers and Vintners. In her spare (????) time, she is the manager AND costumer of the Pale Ale Pirates, who rule the high seas of Lake Michigan in the Dragon Boat Race every July. And she's a great mom and friend - we're lucky to have her in Racine. Thanks for finally doing a story on Kitty and Seams Unlimited.

  11. Thank you Pete for the great story and for bringing the comments back on track. Kitty deserves only positive blogs on a story about her! She is not only what you wrote about and what the last anonymous blog said, but also a great downtown business neighbor. She participates, sponsors and is active in almost every event that downtown puts on, with no hope of a pay back. The downtown businesses sponsor all the free events that the community have come to love. Kitty volunteers and loves being part of all that with us. She is a rare breed of talent and humanity. Even though she doesn't do retail, she is a wonderful neighbor to Downtown Racine.

  12. I would follow Capt'n Kitty wheresoever she should lead!

  13. If you're looking for models, I'd like to donate my time as a dress dummy.