How about six pairs of frogskin pants?
How about Porky Pig in pink carpeting, big as a Volkswagen?
How about a truckload of sequins? Two acres of Santa Claus suits, World War I uniforms, Marie Antoinette gowns and chicken suits, hung in rows sometimes four-high up to the rafters?
And back in a corner a sheet: skull-sized grapes, a truck-sized apple with hat-sized stem - the people-sized Fruit of the Loom costumers for those TV ads.
Well, somebody had to make them. Somebody had to construct all the Siamese headdresses for "The King and I." Somebody had to invent that long-lashed, bejeweled lady gorilla for the number in "Cabaret." And every year, all those dazzling incredible costumes in the Ringling Brothers circus: They have to come from somewhere.
Where they come from is Brooks-Van Horn, the IBM of costumers, who have been going since 1852 and who now are bursting out of their six-story building on 17th Street in New York.
"We work for the designer, essentially," said Arthur Gerold, who seems to run the $5-million business out of his head. "Now you take the circus, this is our biggest job. We work on it five, six months of the year. Their designer is Don Foote, and he brings the sketches and then we come up with an estimate."
The sketches: a winged elephant costume with a train carried by five people; winged suits for camels; winged-horse costumes; fantastic calypso outfits with great swooping epaulets; gossamer space suits; acrobat outfits that appear to be the last word in bondage; futuristic clown dress; reds! ice-blues! golds! rhine-stones! glitter!
"We have two alternates, this whole calypso thing and a country-western theme. We'll give 'em a dual estimate. It's not cheap. These things have to be built, you know. They have to last 1,100 tough, hard performances. Then they go to Australia for another run of the show. Washington gets 'em the second year of the run."
The Ringling job runs into seven figures. It is quite likely the biggest costuming job in the world.
Every costume has to be, not merely put together like a suit coat, but engineered for the terrific demands of athletes. It must be lightweight yet keep its shape, must appear fragile, transparent, ethereal, yet be hardy as tweed.
"Now, we have what we call shoppers, and the designers talks over every piece with them in the work-room. He'll say, 'I see this in beige,' and the shoppers will go th the retail shops and buy the stuff. We know the places: We have five or six good sources for silk-satins, for instance. But you can't go wholesale, there's no time and the amounts are too small."
In the workman: stacks of transparent drawers jammed full of little swatches, fabrics that would have popped Marco Polo's eyes, 24 shades of pink. . . .
The draper who actually makes the garmet lays it out in muslin and estimates the yards needed, say eight yards at $50 a yard. Everything is fitted, often on tailor's dummies, but huge seam allowances are left in for theatrical emergencies.
Sometimes the actors themselves come in to be fitted. Recently the punk-rock group, Kiss, arrived in their limousines to try on their back-and-silver bad-dream suits.
"They didn't have very good figures," a seamstress remarked. "One guy, he's about 5-foot-6, and he gets into his boots and he's 9-foot-3."
The boots are made here too, and the hats and the gloves (one cuff alone has about 40 different brilliants in half a dozen sizes studded on it) and the elaborate padding that builds the wasted figures of the singers into supercreatures from the planet Mongo. The job will take a little over three weeks. You can almost make the costumes for a whole musical in that time.
"In this corner," Gerold waved expansively to just beyond where a cluster of dummies, one enormously fat, stood in headless conversation, "we have our specialists in stretch materials. They do a lot of ballet stuff, a lot of painted fabrics for Willa Kim the Broadway designer. Now, that little lady over there probably makes the best leotards in the world."
There are many people like her at Brooks-Van Horn - brilliant artisans who can turn the wildest designer fantasy into wearable reality, the best in their business. One of these is tailor Benny Taublib, who does all the cutting on special jobs. Benny, slight, wiry and wrinkled, has an Auschwitz number on his left arm. He survived because he was a tailor. (When the company did "The Sound of Music," someone else make the Nazi uniforms.)
Benny was on his way to Antigua to fit Michael Caine for his part in "The Island," an adverture film being made of Peter Benchley's as-yet-unreleased new novel. The costume is just six Brooks Brothers suits (six because Caine may have to get wet in a scene and they may be retakes), but the fitting must be just so.
It was for "The Island" that the company made the suits from frogskins, also anteater hides, snakeskins and sealskins. They will be worn by a long-marooned gang of pirates who make their clothes from what's available in the Caribbean.
"At one point they dig up their ancestors' 17th-century pirate costumes to wear for a raid. We went to the Metropolitan Museum and laid out some authentic pirate coats on the floor and drew paper patterns and made them, with the gold brocade and all. And then we aged 'em. Rotted 'em. Frayed 'em. Ripped 'em up. Put spots and stains on 'em, and that's a lot of work because there's six of each costume and you have to get all the spots and stains exactly the same for each one."
Universal Pictures farmed the job out to Brooks. "They had to. They just don't have the skills to do something like that."
Instant aging and other special effects come from the art department, headed by Martin Izquierdo, which does various jobs not covered by the garment workers union plus all sorts of eccentric projects, like Jack Lemmon's chicken suit, and the helmets for "Man of La Mancha," and "Bugs Bunny in Space," and elegantly painted fabrics for "Carmelina," and a life-sized Howdy Doody.
"We'd make shoes for mosquitoes if we had to," Gerold said.
The basic tool here, Izquierdo said, is stiff, light plastic sheeting that becomes pliable when soaked in acetone and can be molded into headdresses or anything else.
Another trick of the trade is stiff buckram treated with hydrochloric acid. It is used as a lining to hold the shape of fabrics while they're being worked on. When the dress is finished, the heat of an ironing will dissolve the buckram into dust.
To mark farbic, as for the placing of all the brilliants on the Kiss cuff, they are drawn on a paper pattern, then each little shape is outlined in perforations by hand, with hundreds of pinholes. The pattern is laid on the fabric and pounced, or brushed with fine powder, either black or luminescent for certain fabrics (which means it must be worked on in dim light), and finally the stones are placed by punch machine operators.
Elaborate swirls of embroidery are done by machine, but much embroidery is by hand. And sequins are sewn on by hand, one at a time. You wondered why theater tickets cost so much?
Spring is a slow season for Brooks-Van Horn. The full staff of 200 doesn't come on until summer when the circus dominates everything. Worker turnover is high: In this marriage of garment trade and show biz, the pace is fierce, and pay and working conditions are not ideal, and to those inside, it sometimes seems that every talented kid in New York is waiting in line by the door to snap up one of those frantically creative jobs at any price.
Creative! Frantic! "We just finished 'The Island' and 'Ain't Misbehavin','" Gerold said. "We're starting a new play for Roger Stevens at the Kennedy Center. We're doing some replacement work for 'Whoopee.' Next week we begin 'Peter Pan,' which will open in Washington this summer with Sandy Dennis.
"And 'The Vagabond King,' a great big monster production for the Houston Opera. 'Knockout' is opening here; that's ours. Carol Channing's 'Hello Dolly' is ours. Right now we're starting on summer stock productions all over the country. We just finished 'Oklahoma' for Los Angeles, and Robert Goulet's 'Carousel,' and some work for the Washington Opera, and we're rebuilding our stock of 'My Fair Lady' costumes for a new version of that...."
Entire floors of the building are given over to costume stock, all hung on hangers by size, men's in one room, women's in another, grouped by show: "The King and I," "Brigadoon," "The Music Man," "Kismet," "Flower Drum Song," and so on.
There is a rental department, but the firm doesn't encourage party rentals. "We do some Halloween business, but we don't need it, you know."
There is also an advertising costume department, where famous get-ups are created, from the Virginia Slims antique tennis outfits to the Xerox monk habits. It represents about 10 percent of the business, Gerold added.
And the laundry: "We do our own cleaning, we have to; can you imagine what would happen to some of these special fabrics and crazy garments if we took 'em down to the corner cleaners? This April we cleaned 23,000 pounds of cleaning."
Gerold paused to discuss hat storage with a girl who was coping with a bin of feathered caps (each feather dyed like Joseph's coat; that would be the art department), and he suggested handing them from wires on clothes-pins.
"We lose four or five hats every show," the girl said.
"Nothing comes easy," he muttered.
In its rage for accuracy, the company has a library where you can find an 1844 Figaro Illustre, an 1878 Journal des Demoiselles, books on ancient armor of Britain, Germany, Japan, the France Of Louis XII, pictures of the Stuart's Rebel cavalry, histories of the Middle Ages and the Crusades and a study of naughty Victoriana called "Sins of American."
They used real spaghetti to decorate Angela Lansbury's gloriously messy dress as the mad baker's assistant in "Sweeney Todd." Miss Lansbury was not amused.
Look carefully at the uniforms, and you find that even the buttons are correct. A World II British Civil Defense greatcoat has a crown and "CD" on its black buttons. "Oh yeah, we have button specialists...."
In his cluttered office with the clown-face clock on the wall and the piles of swatches and invoices and sketches and folders advertising his Pennsylvania winery, his hobby, Gerold allows himself a pensive moment. Just the other day he found some old hats made famous by Ethel Waters and Pearl Bailey, and when he's had his people refurbish them with new feathers, he'll take them to his hat museum at the winery.
Farbics can be a way of life.
"What a business," someone sighed. "Just keeping track of it all."
He nodded, rocked back in his chair, considered the quality of existence.
"It's a lotta rags," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Arthur Gerold of Brooks-Van Horn, by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Al Kohort works on a chest plate for the rock group Kiss, by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post