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The Fabric of Broadway on Display at the Cameron

Anita Morris' costume from '9'

The Cameron Art Museum dresses up this weekend, with the opening of a costume exhibition by Broadway designer and North Carolina native William Ivey Long.

By Megan V. Williams

Wilmington, NC – William Ivey Long really wishes his mannequins would move.

Walking through the exhibition of his work at the Cameron Art Museum, the celebrated Broadway costume designer obviously misses the kinetic life these glittering outfits used to lead.

"Can this exist, still and silent?" Long asked an audience of journalists. With the exhibit a day away from opening, he's still not sure costumes designed to fit into a story will stand well on their own.

That was only one of several fundamental dilemmas Long says the offer of a show at the museum presented. What place did his costumes have in an art museum anyway? And on a practical level, how do you fit the product of more than fifty Broadway shows into 42,000 square feet anyway?

No telling how many nights these worries might have kept Long awake, but he seems to have resolved them, designing an exhibit that skips around in his career to create micro themes and arresting tableaus - a room with dozens of costumes in nothing but shades of red, three mannequins that reproduce a Rococo painting on the far wall, and in a walled off gallery only visible by peeping through windows, a cluster of pearl-draped dancing girls from The Producers. Long calls it his "forbidden Amsterdam room."

Long, who abandoned his studies in art history to pursue a life in the theatre - I ran off and joined the circus, he jokes - says he found creating a museum show an ironic full-circle. But for the Cameron's Executive Director Deborah Velders this show is an opportunity to bring a man long celebrated in the theatre to a fine arts audience.

Museums, she says, should present the best art of their time, and that should include creators like Long, the best in his field.

Visually, the show is a major departure from Velder's own minimalist curatorial style. Because of the number of costumes, and the anticipated crowds, the exhibit is limiting visitors to guided tours, at least for the first week.

Marching from room to room, Long spills a bit of trivia to go with each outfit.

Those pearl girls in their secret room? The costumes are from the movie adaptation. They never would have made it on the stage; the fake pearls kept breaking off throughout filming. The Frog's gooeyily tactile skin turns out to be the result of painting liquid latex onto stretched fabric and letting it pucker up. And the arresting mesh body suit that clings to a model of Anita Morris in the first room is revealed to be the survivor of a series of ripped and torn costumes, which, as Long puts it, Morris went through "like mud through a goose" in the days before the invention of stretch lace.

It's a hook-and-eye view of Broadway history.

Long only owns about half the costumes on display, and many of those he had to purchase himself. The rest, he says, are the result of scavenging, begging, and petty larceny. He jokes that the lights are dim in many of the galleries to conceal the fact that many of these costumes were "rode hard and put away wet," enduring years of performances.

However he got them, and whatever their ragged edges, these creations of silk and latex, fake jewels and fluttering feathers, have a life all their own, as still as they are.

Check out a few pictures from the exhibit at our photo gallery