Molière's Buttons

A picture of the play-write Molière with buttons around it.
The Play-write Molière with Many Buttons

Often a good idea goes the other way around, and the little voice in your head says, “NO, NO, NO”. But you keep your mouth shut because if you say anything they will be on you like Puritans after a witch. Sometimes it's important to be a team player no matter what, or maybe not.

What am I talking about? In 1985 I was the costume shop manager at Theatre by the Sea in Portsmouth NH. I was in a production meeting concerning the upcoming show “The Imaginary Invalid” by Molière. Do you know Molière and his work? He was a famous French play-write from the late 17th century, known for his comedies. His work is still popular today.

Anyway, the meeting was about building the costumes for the play. In the theatre you don't make costumes, you “build” them. The play was set in the time of Louis XIV, and the costumes were extremely elaborate. There were four women's gowns, with corsets and petticoats, and six men's suits. The suits were the bugaboo. Each suit consisted of a frock coat (suit jacket), waistcoat, knee breeches, shirt, and cravat (tie). Men's tailoring is quite a process, but nothing we couldn't handle. There were also wigs, hats, tights, shoes, and jewelry for everyone. But back to the suits.

Men's clothing from the time of Louis XIV
Men's Clothing from the Time of Louis XIV

Each suit had 75 working buttons and they all had to be sewn on, that's 450 buttons total. Buttons were a popular type of decoration in the Baroque period. The costume shop staff simply couldn't do all the hand -work. I wanted to hire (part-time) two local professional seamstresses (called stitchers in theatre lingo) to do it. I found the money to hire them, but had to have the blessing of the head honchos. The “powers that be” suggested I ask our benevolent volunteers if they could help. “They would appreciate being this involved in a production. And, after all, how hard is it to sew on a button?” I had my doubts. It didn't seem like a good fit for the volunteers, but I didn't want to be the only negative person in the room.

Woman's clothing from the time of Louis XIV
A Woman from the Time of Louis XIV

Theater by the Sea had excellent volunteers who were always eager to help whether that be ushering during a performance, or lending furniture or props for a production. Sometimes we even borrowed their pets as animal actors. But they stayed out of the costume and scene shops. There were liability issues, and unskilled labor slows work down significantly.

The plan was to give each volunteer a suit and box of buttons. They would have a week to sew them on and return them to the costume shop. I recruited eight ladies, two more than needed. They said they understood the task and were eager to help. Early one morning the enlistees showed up. They were excited to see the costumes, but moods quickly darkened when they were each presented with a box of 75 buttons. I demonstrated the preferred method of attachment (there are many ways to sew on a button), crossed my fingers, and sent them on their way.

75 buttons in a dish.
Seventy Five Buttons

I'm sure you've sewn on buttons, maybe a few. After 10 or more it gets a bit tedious. I held my breath. The next morning two exasperated ladies were waiting for me when I arrived at work. They were a tad upset, and told me, this was FAR MORE then they should be expected to do, and they weren't getting paid enough. I didn't bother defining the word “volunteer” or the number 75. They returned the suits and buttons. Each had less than 20 buttons (loosely) sewn on. Three other suits were returned within a couple of days, none complete. My two “spare” volunteers were no longer available. Only one person completed the work. My dear friend P. sewed on all her buttons. But later let me know it was an appalling task. It was. I was never asked to use volunteers again.

The entire costume staff, worked many long nights to finish our work and get all those buttons sewn on (and resew all the loose ones). I remember my assistant saying, “I can work all night if I lock my knees." Sweet girl! The show was a big hit, and the costumes were rented out in the years to come. We soon forgot the dreaded buttons, and were on to the next production. Live theatre is full of horror stories.

I completely forgot this story until P. recently reminded me of it. I couldn't find pictures of this production, but remember taking them. They're lost to time. The costumes are probably still out there somewhere.

I worked at Theatre by the Sea until it went bankrupt in 1987. It is now the Seacoast Repertory Theatre. I wish them well in these difficult times.

Do you have a forgotten horror story from the past that now makes you laugh?

Be well and happy, Spring is just around the corner,


March 1, 2021

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