I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity.
—Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln will always be my favorite first lady. History tries to describe her in the nicest of ways, but it’s more fun to read between the lines. I see the woman as pushy, shrill, pretentious, fragile, and a shop-a-holic. More recently, she’s been described as a fag-hag, citing the possibility that her husband, the 16th President of the United States, was gay. I have friends exactly like her. What’s not to love?
I was super excited to do Robert E. Sherwood’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I hadn’t dressed a show with that many hoop skirts since The King and I. Something about hoop skirts brings out both comedy and tragedy backstage. I love the ritual of getting an actress dressed up in all the layers. Sure, it’s fun the first week, but reality sets in. Women really dressed that way all the time. I eventually see burden on the women’s face until the show closes.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s costumes were carefully researched and built from scratch by the theatre’s costume shop. She had a different dress and hairstyle for each act of the play. My favorite was a gold, purple, and grey plaid ensemble. The fabric was a one-directional silk taffeta with one-inch stripes of each color crossing up and down. Because the skirt was heavily pleated over the hoop, there was a lot of yardage involved.
After the last preview of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, the costume shop went off contract and all the workers moved on to other jobs around town. At the opening night party, my friend, Donovan, approached me.
“You realize the plaid in one of the panels of Mary’s skirt is going the wrong way?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“The purple stripe goes up and down, except in one panel where it goes side to side.”
I didn’t believe him. Donovan and I left the party and marched up to the empty women’s dressing room to investigate. He was right. One of the front panels of the future first lady’s skirt was built with the plaid going the opposite direction of the rest of her costume. I was shocked that the dress had made it’s way through the hands of several costume shop workers, the costume designer, myself, and the actress playing Mary Todd Lincoln with such a big boo-boo.
The truth was that the mismatched plaid wasn’t all that easy to spot at first: all the repeats, all the colors, all the lines. The fabric was tricky – sort of like a M. C. Escher illustration or a Magic Eye picture. But once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it. It was a slap in the face.
I went to work early the next day to get a better look at the costume in private. The lines were matched up perfectly from one panel to the next –they were just paired up with the wrong side of the fabric. It was pleated insanity. I counted lines to see if I could just take the erroneous panel out and flip it and re-sew it into the correct place. Sadly, the panel was a rectangle, not a square. It would never fit and the skirt would lose too much yardage.
This really SUCKS!
A debate in my head began.
Maybe no one but Donovan would ever notice?
I could just pretend Donovan never pointed the error out to me.
I said nothing that evening when I got Mary Todd Lincoln dressed. I tried to convince myself that this could be a good thing. Mary Todd Lincoln was rather bonkers. Wouldn’t her costume be, too?
During the show, I went to the back row of the theatre to check the costume out from a distance. Sure enough, the mismatched plaid skirt was glaring at me. Plus, part of the bodice had the plaid going the wrong direction as well.
I left my body for a moment.
Hello. I’m Mary Todd Lincoln.
My life is going to be very, very difficult.
I’m manic-depressive – long before medication.
My husband’s going to have a big war to deal with.
Three of my young sons will drop dead.
John Wilkes Booth.
Then …I realize my dressmaker fucked up. The plaid in my dress is all screwed up and I look like a fool.
I AM crazy!
Yeah. The plaid costume needed to be corrected.
This was going to be a big sewing job; too big for me with all of my other duties.
My goal was to keep the drama onstage and get the costume fixed discreetly, not letting the actress playing Mary Todd Lincoln know that anything was wrong. Why get her all crazy in real life?
My boss gave me a strict labor budget to correct the problem. I was careful to hire the right person who was willing to go in and redo someone else’s work and keep it as quiet as possible.
A dark garment bag was used to smuggle the costume out of the theatre on a Sunday night. There was no more of the plaid fabric left to buy in town, so the small amount of scraps had to do. All day Monday (the theatre’s day off) my secret-agent-stitcher carefully pieced enough of the fabric scraps together to fix the dress. I met her on Tuesday at a public fountain where she handed me the dark garment bag and her timesheet like it was a ten-pound bag of heroin.
“Are we good?” I asked.
“It was like a horrible game of Tetris. But I think you will be pleased,” she said with a confident nod.
Back at the theatre, I inspected the Mary Todd Lincoln’s costume. The repeats, the colors, the lines were perfect. You couldn’t tell where it was pieced back together. I steamed the costume and hung it in the dressing room as if nothing had happened.
My costumer friend, Becky, came to visit me backstage after she saw the show that night.
“I heard about the plaid debacle,” she said, devilishly wanting to see the mistake up close.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her and shooed her out of my office.
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
— Abraham Lincoln
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.