The third floor of the Avalon String Band clubhouse on Two Street in South Philadelphia is called The Sweatshop. It’s crammed with decades of old costumes, racks of ribbons, tubs of feathers, buckets of sequins — and two people working slavishly.
“It was my fault. I told them I could sew. It’s been downhill from there,” said Amanda Kiesel, 23. A fashion designer and recent graduate of Moore College of Art and Design, Kiesel is the daughter and granddaughter of lifelong Mummers.
“Yup,” she laughed. “I had no choice.”
Kiesel works alongside Jim Tatar, a Mummer of 32 years. He’s been a captain, officer, a marshal, a performer, and a costume designer, sometimes all at the same time.
“They all kind of run together. You have to look at pictures to remember,” he said.
Tatar is old school. To know what that means you have to look at old pictures, or visit the Mummers Museum on Washington Avenue: it means feathers. A cape of feathers. A robe of feathers. A halo of feathers. A Mummer will drape himself with an aura of feathers.
“If I don’t think there’s enough feathers, it gets added,” said Tatar, who first learned how to apply feathers as a boy in his uncle’s garage. “More and more feathers.”
Leaving glue gun behind
You still see lots of feathers on New Year’s Day, but not as many as decades ago. Instead, cutting-edge costumers use electronics, embedding LED lights into clothes to give them dazzle. They also make tear-away costumes so a performer can instantly pull off a suit to reveal different garb underneath.
“Things on Broadway are showing up in the street on New Year’s,” said Tatar. “A performer turns around and the suit changes at the pull of a string. They didn’t have that years ago.”
While Mummers have been taking a long look at themselves – at the urging of the city – to update their cultural sensitivity so as not to offend, they have also been updating their fashion sense.
Designing electronics and break-aways takes a lot of skill, which Tatar admits he doesn’t really have. Instead of a sewing machine, he uses a hot-glue gun.
“Before I met Amanda, this was my sewing machine,” he said, holding up a cordless glue gun. “That’s how I put everything together, with a glue gun. I could not use a sewing machine, or a needle and thread for that matter.”
Tatar and Kiesel, who are making 64 suits for the parade, have already burned through 75 pounds of hot glue. Each suit has more than a pound of glue holding it together — and they’re not finished yet.
“If I’d brought a glue gun into school. I would have failed,” said Kiesel. “My teachers would have been screaming.”
She also would have been ostracized if she structured a hat using Chinese take-out food containers or used platinum blond hair extensions to make sasquatch boots.
But that’s part and parcel of The Sweatshop.
“I’m a women’s wear designer. I designed a bridal collection for senior year with a lot of tulle,” said Kiesel, referring to a specialized fabric. “I come here, I have to design for these 6-foot-3, 300-pound guys. Everything I learned in school is, like, it’s still in my brain, but I had to relearn stuff.”
Working with Mummers has been a master class in alterations. With Kiesel’s training she can pull apart old suits from previous years, mix and match, then stitch them back together to make something completely new.
Her skills have been a lifesaver for the club.
“Having her come in and helping us out – if it didn’t happen I don’t know where the organization would be,” said Tatar. “We went through a rough time, financially. We didn’t have the money to spend on new costumes. We wound up recycling. Everything is so expensive. It’s kind of killing the parade.”
For her part, Kiesel said she’s not going anywhere. She grew up with the Mummers and expects to stay with them, even after – knock wood – she finds a job in fashion. She’s still looking, and she’s got the Mummers on her resume.
“A future employer is going to look at it, and I’ll have to explain myself: ‘Look, December a little rough for me,’” she said. “And I’ll need off on Jan. 2.”