The Proper Application

by Jacob Coakley

The Starlight Theatre production of The King & I with costumes from Kansas City Costume Company.
The Starlight Theatre production of The King & I with costumes from Kansas City Costume Company.
Costume and makeup companies talk about making it work

Clothing makes the man—and doubly so on stage. Costumes and makeup help actors define character, let the audience know who they’re dealing with and can be a real pain if they’re not constructed or applied properly. Stage Directions spoke to a variety of costume and makeup companies to find out how they’re making life easier for everyone onstage, and what theatres can do to make it through a production without any wardrobe malfunctions.

AEO Studios
Alan Ostrander started AEO Studios in 1996, and has evolved it into a one-stop-shop for makeup and special effects—not only will they sell you the supplies you need, but they can also offer the consulting and guidance to make sure an effect goes flawlessly.


“Our belief is that DIY does not mean ‘figure it out yourself,’” says Drew Dalire, managing partner and producer at AEO. “We are here as a resource and we cater to all aspects of the entertainment industry and to novices.” Their staff and associated artists have a wide range of experience, from theatre to theme parks, and specific genres of makeup, from beauty to horror and SFX.

“We work hard to educate our amateurs and students that planning is very important,” adds Dalire. “There are situations where we've had to go onsite to fix someone's mistakes. It’s great we can help them—but we like to educate before it comes to that, so rehearsal doesn’t last long into the night.”

Lately they’ve been stocking more face-painting and airbrush products, especially of makeup companies HD lines. “We select products out of those lines that are versatile, and not just for a particular genre of makeup,” says Dalire. Mehron's new Celebré HD line has been one of their big sellers as it encompasses a wider range of skin tones.

 Tina’s Productions supplied costumes for the Haddonfield Memorial High School production of My Fair Lady
Tina’s Productions supplied costumes for the Haddonfield Memorial High School production of My Fair Lady

Tina’s Productions
Americans are getting bigger, but sometimes it seems as if costumes aren’t. “It sounds horrible, but a lot of times if actors don’t fit into a standard mold, nobody wants to deal with you,” says Tina Heinze, the owner of Tina’s Productions, a costume rental house in Philadelphia. “We go out of our way to make sure that everybody in the production looks good. It’s my name on the costume, and I don’t want to put something out there that I wouldn’t be proud to wear myself.”


Originally opened in the back of a dry cleaners, Tina’s Productions has grown to fill two warehouses, 4,000 square feet of stock. They’ve accomplished such growth by having a great, experienced staff (including a tailor with more than 17 years experience building for Broadway shows). All that experience pays off when it comes to working with actors and directors, as they can tailor a costume to fit a specific actor and accentuate their features, or work with a director to find exactly the right costumes for an “out there” concept.

But there’s one thing Heinze recommends for everyone: No Febreeze. “People are allergic,” she says, relating the story of a national tour whose kids broke out in a rash from it. Instead, use a mixture of vodka and water. The fast-evaporating alcohol takes the odors with it. Although… “I tell the adults at schools not to tell the kids what it is,” she says, laughing.

Mallatt Pharmacy & Costumes
From pharmacy to makeup reseller to costumes and accessories, Mallatt Pharmacy & Costumes has been taking care of folks in Madison, Wisc., and everywhere else since 1928. Karen Brown-Larimore is their resident designer, and uses her work as an IATSE stagehand to ensure the shop is staying current.

“When a national tour comes to town, I’ll always check to see what they’re using,” says Brown-Larimore. “When a tour like Shrek comes through, I’ll find out what brand of makeup the show is using and then be sure that we have it in our store.”

The hard part for her inventory is that more and more people are mixing and matching their brands. “It used to be just Max Factor—and then it was Ben Nye and Max Factor,” Brown-Larimore says. “Now there’s good quality in every manufacturer—you might find the exact color you want in one, but get that color in a water base from someone else.”
Other than makeup, Brown-Larimore and Mallatt focus on the funky and hard-to-find items. Quality and inexpensive are her watchwords when she’s stocking the shelves. “I try to carry things that I can’t find in other places.” Her current prize? Monocles. “It’s hard to find a monocle that fits in the eye but I found one that works very nicely.”

Period Corsets
Undergarments aren’t generally associated with speed and efficiency, but that’s exactly how Hilary Specht Coffey and the pros at Period Corsets approach their art. “We save the shop time and money by providing the underwear so they can get a jump on their build,” says Hilary.

Period Corsets has been dedicated to nothing but historical corsets and underwear since 1998, when Becky Kaufman and Susan Davis noticed they were getting calls almost exclusively for the garments. In the years since then they’ve added expert staff, including costume historians, distilling the style of various eras into an emblematic silhouette so the costume shop doesn’t have to. “When costumers buy our corsets they’re buying many, many hours of research and development.”

They offer 13 different styles of corsets in standard sizes, so they can replicate any look quickly—but they can also personalize to any design. With the rise of the Steampunk aesthetic they made a custom outfit based on their stock patterns. “It’s an example of how you can use our garments with other fabrics and create a whole new kind of look but still based in history,” says Hilary. “Whenever we see a trend we try to do one example of how our garments can look like that, to show that they can adapt. It’s almost like painting on canvas.”

Mardi Gras Costume Shop
Mardi Gras Costume Shop was started in 1974 in an antique shop and has grown to be Arizona’s largest costume shop with more than 25,000 high-end but affordable rental costumes that go out across America, and a full range of makeup and wigs.

“We’re a real, live costume shop that does shows for the local community and across the United States,” says Oscar Gibson, owner of Mardi Gras since 2000. He’s proud of the size and diversity of his collection, but he’s not resting on his laurels. His staff is continuously working on new shows. “We cater to the individual who wants something different,” continues Gibson. “We have a full build staff of designers who can create just about anything you could imagine.”

And when you’re building costumes for a show across the country, communication is paramount. “There is a lot of back and forth with the customer, figuring out exactly the color palette they need, the number of leads, whether they’re following the costume plot exactly or will modify it.” They can modify their costumes too, with plenty of size options in stock, and of course his staff can make any necessary alterations. The goal is to make it right. “There are many, many parts to a show and we work hard with the customer find out what direction they are going, so that we can give it to them.”

Costume Holiday House
Costume Holiday House was started in 1959, when Dorothy Kerns won a prize for her Mickey and Minnie Mouse costume. She made more award-winning costumes, and people started wanting to rent them. Today the company is run by her two sons, Doug and Gregg, but her legacy lives on.

“My mom was very picky about the quality of the costume,” says Gregg Kerns, president of the company now.  “That and the fact that she never said ‘no.’ We’ve never said no to anybody. We’ll do whatever we’ve got to do to make a show happen.”

Part of the reason they can be fastidious with cleanliness and compete on price is the fact they have their own dry cleaning plant in their warehouse. In fact, he prefers theatres not to wash their costumes before they send them back so that he can ensure nothing happens to them. Kerns also has his staff of seamstresses and designers go through their stock and constantly refurbish it or pull it from stock if it gets too worn. “I’m just very picky about how the quality of the costume goes out.”

And after 50 years in business they’ve got the variety to rent multiple versions of shows simultaneously. “You can do Hello, Dolly! 100 different way, and each way is correct,” says Kerns. His staff is continually building new looks for new shows and expanding the repertoire they have in stock to ensure they’ve got enough on hand to accommodate everyone.

Costumes for Xanadu from Maine State Music Theatre
Costumes for Xanadu from Maine State Music Theatre

Maine State Music Theatre
Two edges of the country came together to start the costume rental division at Maine State Music Theatre. When Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach closed a few years ago, Maine State bought up their stock of costumes—including 90 full musicals and a huge inventory of general stock. But of course they haven’t stopped there. They have now filled more than 65,000 square feet of costume storage space.


“We keep adding to our stock, including new shows like Drowsy Chaperone and Xanadu,” says Kurt Alger, the resident costume and wig designer and rentals coordinator at Maine State. “And we have recently acquired the original designs of Spamalot and Rent. And we are exclusively licensed to rent those.”

But with all these high-end designs, they still try to reach out to theatres with limited budgets. “We really try to work with each individual client and help them on their budget point,” says Alger. “We’ll try to make it work for you and accommodate, and we can do partial packages as well as full packages.”

They’re also willing to work with companies when it comes to alterations. “Most of the costumes are built with a lot of seam allowance in them,” says Alger. “We allow alterations to be made as long as they are restored when they are returned to us.”

Kansas City Costume Company
Kansas City Costume Company hit the jackpot 15 years ago when two of the largest musical theatre companies in the country—Kansas City Starlight Theatre and the Muny in St. Louis—offered them their costume contracts. For the past 15 years they’ve had a unique opportunity to build, build, build and expand their collection with top-flight costumes.
“So one of the beautiful things about our inventory is that it’s new, it’s clean, it’s maintained and there are hundreds of thousands of costumes,” says Steve Short, president of Kansas City Costume Company.

One of the great things about having so many top-flight costumes is that smaller theatres don’t get second-class costumes. “When smaller or more budget-restricted theatre rent costumes, they know that larger theatres are going to get the better stock. Well, we feel that the smaller theatres should get better stock too,” continues Short.

This attitude of accommodation extends to alterations as well. “You can hem until you’re blue in the face,” says Short, quickly adding that there’s no cutting allowed, and costumes do have to be returned in their original state. He’s not worried, though, saying “Sometimes amateurs treat things better than professionals do.”

Alcone Company
Alcone has been supplying makeup to Broadway since 1950. Today they’re a catalogue and web-based distributor, offering every aspect of makeup for stage, special effects, and regular beauty application—but as their retail store in the Broadway district can attest, they still have a special focus on theatre.

“I’m a glorified delivery boy for Broadway,” says Vincent Mallardi, underplaying his talents as a makeup designer and account manager at Alcone. He lists off the array of shows he supplies, including Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. “It’s totally over the top, big lashes and glitter. They use a lot of Kryolan Aquacolor.” His expertise typifies the staff at Alcone, who are happy to talk style and help makeup designers forge their own look.

They also focus on making life easier for makeup designers everywhere. Their new Lipstamp tool is a sponge  applicator for lipstick that helps makeup designers achieve a consistent lip look across an entire chorus. “You actually choose the shape you want and you put it on the applicator,” explains Mallardi. “Then you color that in with the lipstick and stamp the lips right on.”

They also recognize the beauty in being able to take makeup off quickly. Their makeup remover cloths—“Which takes everything off, lips, eyes and cheeks”—are now also available in a pop-up pack, like Kleenex, making clean up easier for everyone.  

Graftobian Makeup Co.
Graftobian Makeup Company started as a face-painting makeup house that expanded into theatrical makeup in the late ‘90s. The high-costume roots of the company live on, though. “We separated ourselves from the other theatrical makeup brands out there by leaning in the fantasy direction,” says Eric G. Coffman, president of Graftobian. “Offering colored latexes, glitters, mustard powders and creams, liquid glitters for the eyes and the lips.” Despite all that, they were one of the first companies to develop an HD line of makeup. Their HD makeup was developed to give thin, even, smooth coverage for TV and film, but is becoming more important in theatre.

“Theatre lighting is changing,” says Coffman. Theatres are using more LEDs and other sources, not just incandescent sources and gels. This change in color impacts the look of makeup onstage, too. “You've got to use more natural pigmentation and colors on stage now.” Their line of 64 shades in the Hi-Def Glamour Cremes are designed to look great under any lighting.

Coffman also sees airbrushing becoming more popular, too, as it can apply different sorts of makeup—light coverage for an intimate theatre, more extreme for a Broadway-sized house—quickly. They distribute a couple different airbrush systems to help theatres with that.

“Now, I don’t believe you are ever going to replace the white foam sponge wedge,” says Coffman. “But as theatre progresses into hi-definition makeup, people are going to use airbrush techniques more often.”

Ben Nye
Ben Nye is one of the biggest companies in theatrical makeup, with more than 40 years of experience, but that doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels.

“More and more I’m hearing from makeup designers that directors want makeup to be good looking when they pass the performer in the hallway,” says Dana Nye, president of Ben Nye. “Directors are looking for subtlety that was not known 10 years ago.” To help with that, they’ve expanded their Matte HD series of foundation with 12 new colors, giving designers and actors more than 80 different shades to choose from in an ultra-light base that still has 40% pigment. In powders, they also have the MediaPro Poudre Compact in the Bella series of 10 colors for fair complexions and the Mojave series of eight colors for olive and brown complexions.

Ben Nye is also reacting to the incursion of LEDs into theatre, refining their colors appear less red and more natural under the new lights—but even so, there are techniques actors can use to insure the makeup looks natural.

“We’ve found the most common mistake amateurs make is to apply too much, or too dark, a foundation,” says Nye. “Inadequate blending is a problem, too.” Inadequate blending means that shadows become lines instead of contours. “And in today’s improved LED stage lighting, contouring and delicacy play a much greater role.”


AEO Studios
2200 N. Forsyth Rd., Ste. A-15
Orlando, FL 32807
P: 407-677-8706

Alcone Company
5-45 49th Ave.
Long Island City, NY 11101
P: 718-361-8373

Ben Nye Company
3655 Lenawee Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
P: 310-839-1984

Costume Holiday House

3038 Hayes Ave.
Fremont, OH 43420
P: 419-334-3236

Graftobian Makeup Company
510 Tasman St.
Madison, WI 53714
P: 608-222-7849

Kansas City Costume Company
2020 Grand Blvd
Kansas City, MO, 64108
P: 816-221-8600

Maine State Music Theatre

Costume Rentals
22 Elm St.
Brunswick, ME 04011
P: 207-208-8950

Mallatt Pharmacy & Costumes
3506 Monroe Street
Madison, WI 53711
P: 877-687-5287 ext. 7

Mardi Gras Costume Shop
5895 N. Granite Reef Rd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85250
P: 480-948-4030

Period Corsets
PMB 5584
10002 Aurora Avenue N. #36
Seattle, WA 98133-9334
P: 206-264-0997

Tina's Productions, Inc.
130 Ferry Ave, Ste. A
Woodlynne, NJ 08104
P: 856-962-0300