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Costumes: Bethany Joy Costumes, Inc.

Michael S. Eddy • June 2021Theater Maker: Costumes • May 25, 2021


This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below, or in our June 2021 digitial edition

Bethany Joy Costumes, Inc., located in Manhattan’s garment district, makes custom made clothing for theatre, opera, dance, live entertainment, TV, film, and more. Bethany Itterly, also known as Bethany Joy, started the company in 2014. Through out the pandemic, in addition to keeping her business going, Bethany Joy has handled the social media outreach for the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC). She took some time to speak with Stage Directions about her business and how she’s supporting the CIC through the pandemic. 

Tell us how Bethany Joy Costumes got started?
My first job in the city was in the costume shop for Papermill Playhouse, but it was seasonal work. So, I was forced to pick up freelancing gigs in between their shows and during the summer. That allowed me to work in short bursts at other costume shops in the city and explore how they operated and see the type of work that they do. Eventually I was becoming busier and busier doing more freelance work. It made me think, ‘I’m young, why not give it a try and if it doesn’t work, then I’ll move on and do something else’. So, I went out on my own, and very quickly, a cycle emerged where I got more work than I alone could handle, so I hired someone on and then I needed to have a bigger space for the extra help, and so on. As I was growing, I set a standard for all the work going out my door, nothing left without hitting those criteria. I let the work develop a reputation that preceded me as well as constantly developing my network of clients. Before COVID I had eight full-time employees and we were about to move into an entire floor. Thank goodness, I didn’t sign that lease before the shutdown. Perspective is a funny thing, looking back over a year later I am fortunate that I didn’t increase the scale of the shop, staying small for the time being I am able to ebb and flow with the demand of work during the pandemic. Employing young professionals also gives me some flexibility. During COVID some of them have spun off and gotten interim jobs until I can bring them back again full-time. We’re all just hunkering down trying to survive long enough and wait this out. But I also want to make sure my clients know our doors are still open and we are still here ready and able to accept work. We will then start that climb again, hopefully a little faster this time around, since the company is more established. 

What are some of the different crafts and services that your company provides?
We’re mostly a dressmaking shop, but we also take on tailoring and menswear. We will take on the occasional outside of the box projects, that are more “garment sculpture” than dressmaking. We can, and will, do really anything that comes through the shop; I’m always open for a challenge.

What is it about costume work that you love?
I like working with my hands, so that ticks one box off for me, but I also really like the attention to detail that the world of dressmaking caters to. I love those moments of being able to really fine-tune details and being able to collaborate with other professionals and artists, like dyers, printers, beaders, pleaters, embroiderers, etc. Learning from them and picking their brain about techniques to add to my repertoire. I just love the work. 

What are one or two pieces that you’re particularly proud of as costume creations?
Oh, wow! That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. One project I am thinking of was a collaboration with Suttirat Larlarb. She was designing American Gods season one. She reached out to me for this character who is travelling from Ireland to the United States and per the script we needed to show the passage of time. I made this pink jacket that had all this lace on it. I had to make it seven times so they could distress each one and break it down to show the passage of time. This was all done from afar and on a tight production schedule. I didn’t have a chance to fit the garments we made, as they were working out of the country. It was a lot of hard work and I had to trust that my skill set could hold its own. I am glad to say that it did and everyone was very pleased. I always enjoy working with Suttirat, we work together frequently.

What’s a unique, bizarre, perhaps challenging piece that stands out to you?
Angels in America I would say was challenging. We made what were called, “Shadows”, the puppeteers for the Angel wings. Nicky Gillibrand, the designer had rendered this painting, which then got printed on to Lycra and stretch velvet. We then had to place the pieces very specifically, Nicky wanted them to look like birds, and shadows that ebbed and flowed from the darkness. So as they’re puppeteering the wings, we don’t really see them, but you know something’s there. As that designer was coming in from England, we didn’t really have a lot of time with her and we couldn’t do different things in the printing process. Sometimes we didn’t have enough of the prints and we had to be creative when cutting. There was a lot of collaboration on that project—with the designer and her team, with the printer, with my team—to make sure that we got the end product just as the designer wanted. And at the end of the day, everyone was happy with it and the actors were able to do their job, which is the most important part.

Talk a little bit about how technology has changed over time, and how your shop balances the craft with newer technologies.
I’m not a full-service shop; we are makers, I don’t delve too deeply in crafts or other areas of the industry where technology is used daily. We still draft our patterns by hand. It’s going to sound old-fashioned, which is kind of funny because I’m on the younger side of the costume industry, but I really do prefer hand drafting or draping. I find that there’s a certain hand or feel to the garment that you miss when drafting digitally, which I have dabbled in briefly. So, the technical aspects, what we do, I think, haven’t really changed. The material still has to go through someone’s hands whether it’s to be assembled by machine or by hand. But that’s not to say that we’re not open to it. You know, I’m always looking for what’s next, what’s the new thing? How can I implement it? That’s the beauty of the people that I have working here. Like I said, they’re young professionals, maybe they’ve learned something while they were in school and then they can bring it here and teach all of us. And in reverse I can teach them my tips, my trade secrets, things that I’ve learned from working in all these different places.

What’s one or two things that if you were speaking with a producer or designer, you’d want them to know about your shop?
That we are passionate, young, and hungry, and ready to do the work. We’ll work those extra hours to ensure that it is the perfect product that they want. We just want the opportunity to do good work and be proud of the work that we produce. 

What about a designer you’ve not worked with before? What would you want to tell them?
I don’t say no to anything, unless there is a scheduling conflict. I’m open to a challenge. I’m open to collaborating with new people. I want to be pushed and get better every day. I’m not interested in the status quo. I want to keep pushing the boundaries. Whatever it is, I’m open to the collaboration. I like to carve out the space and time of “let’s focus on the work.” I am also very conscious of the type of working atmosphere that I create here in the shop. There are times when I’ve had designers come in and they comment, ‘it’s just so calming in here, just so nice’. That’s a lovely thing to hear, because I do truly believe in that philosophy. If everyone here is happy doing their work and I can create this calm or joyful place, that does get back into the work that we create. I always smile when we see repeat clients.

Talk about your work in support of the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC).
When the CIC was formed, and because of COVID I had extra time on my hands. I wanted to do something that could not only help myself, my business, and employees, but also the other artists that are in this industry, because we all work together. It’s an ecosystem. If one of us falls, that’s not great for everyone else. If the pleaters or the beaders disappears, we’re going to see those effects through the industry. I thought, let me do what I can to help further the message and get awareness out there about our industry and the struggles we are facing. As the Costume Industry Coalition was developing their various platforms, I volunteered to help them with the social media. It’s a great way to get daily snippets of our message out there and get people to become aware of us and see what we’re doing. 

These artisans are behind the scenes and are never really given the light of day. One of the CIC’s social media team’s ideas is what we call, Behind the Seams. They are photos and short testimonials to showcase all the workers that are behind the craft, as well as showcase the broad diversity of our artisans, they hail from all over the world. The CIC social media effort continues to tell our story and helps drive donations to the CIC Recovery Fund. We, the CIC members, have had unsustainable work for over a year now. When Broadway reopens it’s not going to be all of the sudden back to business as usual. The Recovery Fund is to help members survive this pause and help them get back on their feet as work starts to pick up again. Just as we have always supported each other in costumes, we are going to need support of the theater industry to start getting back to where we were before COVID.  

You can learn more about Bethany Joy Costumes at www.bethanyjoycostumesinc.com

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