Playing Dress-up

By Amy Kane

Hampton Union, Friday, October 21, 2005

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Ann Carnaby & snarling wolf

HAMPTON -- In an old building near the heart of downtown Hampton, make believe hangs on racks and fantasy has a home.

The door opens with a tinny jingle of bells. A slight breeze ruffles a feather boa and the fur on the head of a snarling wolf.

A dressmaker's dummy, headless and legless, wears a medieval gown. The bodice clings and the lush fabric of the skirt hangs beautifully, as though a real person were inside it.

A big black cat named Pyewacket stretches, leaps from his cozy basket on the boss's desk and sleeks across the 100-year-old wooden floors, on the prowl for foolish mice.

Halloween is coming.

Kids and adults will get in on the act, dress up and be someone else for an evening. But for Ann Carnaby and the women who work at Tracy Theatre Originals, costumes are a year-round passion, profession and possibly an obsession.

Ann Carnaby has owned Tracy Theatre Originals since 1981. She is the fourth owner, and third female owner, of a company that began designing, creating and renting costumes for theatrical productions in the 1920s in Boston.

The company's bread and butter are costumes and show-specific props for musicals and period plays across the country.

"We make Broadway possible for high school and community theater groups," says Carnaby. "You could say we're at the far end of the Broadway food chain."

Tracy costumes are on stage in "La Cage Aux Folles" at Seacoast Repertory Theatre; "Guys and Dolls" at Plymouth State; and an original show called "Halloween Dreams" in Springfield, Ill.

Upcoming shows include "Little Women" at a high school in Illinois, "Patience" at the Fresno City Opera, "Peter Pan" by the Pentucket Players in Haverhill, Mass., and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Winnacunnet High School.

The company also rents costumes for parties and masquerades, weddings, historical re-enactments, and even for Halloween for those willing to call ahead and make an appointment for a fitting.

Costumes are $85 for a two-day or weekend rental, which includes alterations and cleaning upon return.

Some costumes are custom-made for specific occasions and unusual hobbies.

A member of the Sherlock Holmes Society recently ordered a "proper Victorian morning coat" from Tracy. A Portsmouth resident commissioned all of the clothing for a historical re-enactment of an Arctic expedition in the late 1800s, including an Inuit sheepskin outfit.

Tracy costumed a wedding party, with men in kilts and women in Renaissance gowns.

Carnaby and the staff at Tracy design and "build" most of the costumes, and they do alterations for every show and rental. There are about 45,000 costumes and pieces in the 12,000-square-foot building at 70 High St.

They are researching and creating costumes for "Aida," which was just released to the amateur market. Carnaby is making the "mantle of responsibility" worn by the Nubian slave queen, using more than 200 one-foot squares of patterned chiffon. It will take her about 25 hours.

Why costumes?

"I've always wanted to make beautiful things," says Carnaby. "I said, this is what I want to do when I grow up, because then I didn't have to grow up."

She loves plays and musicals and being part of the magic of theater. She enjoys hand- and machine-sewing.

"I derive a deep satisfaction from seeing 8 to 12 yards of plaid in a kilt move the way it's supposed to on stage," she says.

The first floor is the work room and a small retail shop for makeup and props. The second floor is where most the costumes are kept, in long aisles with racks.

Some of the clothes are genuine old garments that Tracy does not rent out, but uses for research to create other costumes.

"Did you know in George Washington's day, the shape of the armhole was different, with the seam farther back?" says Carnaby. "The cut of clothes would affect their stance too."

For women, some costumes include boning stitched into the bodice. "It's historically accurate and helps the actress stand in a better way."

The costumes are arranged by historical period, beginning with skins and ancient Egyptian costumes, moving through Greek, Roman, Medieval and Shakespearean times, then Renaissance, Gilbert and Sullivan and the 1900s, with a whole aisle of Cinderella and other fairy-tale costumes like "Beauty and the Beast."

"Our Lumiere has battery-operated hands and head."

Carnaby believes being on stage is a wonderful opportunity, especially for young people. "It gives them a way to stretch, to try on different characters."

She also teaches stage makeup and provides coaching for costume renters.

"Let's say you're going to a murder mystery as a gun moll," she says. "I'd say, 'Wear bright red lipstick, hold a cigarette, stand like this.'

"Dressing up is a wonderful opportunity to be someone other than who you are."

For information, visit

What is a costume?

The 2000 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a costume this way:

Noun: 1. A style of dress, including garments, accessories, and hairstyle, especially as characteristic of a particular country, period, or people. 2. An outfit or a disguise worn on Mardi Gras, Halloween, or similar occasions. 3. A set of clothes appropriate for a particular occasion or season. Transitive verb: Inflected forms: cos·tumed, cos·tum·ing, cos·tumes (k-stm, -stym, kstm, -tym) 1. To put a costume on; dress. 2. To design or furnish costumes for. Etymology: French, from Italian, style, dress, from Latin cnsutd, custom.