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story.lead_photo.caption “The Costume Lady” Debi Manire shows off Tim the Enchanter’s antlers she made for a production of Spamalot. Her garage is just one of the spaces in her house packed to the gills with costumes. Rather than sell her pieces, she hopes to help create a theater cooperative. “The cooperative feels like it would serve more people. I feel strongly about that.” - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Stepping into Debi Manire's living room is a bit like stepping into an alternate reality, where one is almost immediately confronted with two versions of Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Debi Manire, also known as the Costume Lady, has a soft spot for hats, which she loves to create or customize for her costume collection.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Debi Manire is shown wearing one of her many hats, most of which she either made or customized.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Debi Manire is shown wearing one of her many hats, most of which she either made or customized.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Debi Manire is shown wearing one of her many hats, most of which she either made or customized.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Debi Manire has seen a lot of waste in the theater world and hopes a cooperative for sharing props and costumes would be the answer to helping financially squeezed school and community productions. “With Equity actors, a costume has to be retired after a certain number of times used. Well, the high schools don’t care. Pass it on.”

They're mannequins, of course. And they're just the beginning, because Manire's Little Rock home is nearly packed to the gills with Civil War greatcoats, princess dresses, clown costumes and animal headdresses.

Even a ceiling fan has been called into service as a rack for headdresses, wreaths and a set of antlers from a production of Spamalot.

The only room in her house that's costume-free is her bedroom.

"But I do dress people in here sometimes," she says, with a laugh accompanying the confession.

It's fitting, no pun intended, for a woman who calls herself "the Costume Lady."

She won't be the Costume Lady forever, though, and she's already looking ahead and trying to find a home and purpose for her vast stock of sartorial splendor: "I have a lot of stuff I would like to see become community property somehow."

Manire has always been an artist but her focus was on rearing her three children. At age 35, she started attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and graduated with a degree in theater.

"I was always sort of a mom first and an artist second," she explains. "My degree was for my own personal enrichment."

She taught theater, did floral work and made three-dimensional fabric animal sculptures. But she was always what she calls a "drama mama," helping with her children's activities and productions at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, like the annual Tales From the Crypt at Mount Holly Cemetery.

Then, when her youngest daughter graduated, Parkview teacher Fred Boosey asked her to continue, with pay.

"I kind of said, 'That's a novel idea.'"

It was the start. The next year, 2000, she made the Mount Holly costumes and has since made that event and its costumes her specialty.

She began sending out fliers to teachers at other schools, offering her costuming services and building up a client base through word of mouth.

Over 16 years, the list of her clients has become a long one and includes high schools, churches, community theater groups, dance groups and filmmakers. She has a collection of 170 play programs that credit or thank her for her costumes. And that's just the shows she has had time to attend. She can't make it to every one.

But she's a firm believer that whether public or private, big budget or small, every show should be magical.

"I believe that all schools and all socio-economic groups should have the opportunity to look good and have that part of the spectacle and magic in their productions."

For a long time, Manire scheduled carefully, not double-booking.

"Now, I sometimes have three or four shows on the same weekend. Now I'm busier than I want to be."


When Manire "does" a show, it involves hours of meetings, measuring, sorting and searching, and a "dress-up party": basically a full Saturday with Manire, the director, one or two assistants and a revolving door of cast members trying on costumes. Everything rented out has to be carefully labeled and written down.

"It's really fun but it's nuts."

As her client list has grown, so has her inventory. And most of the pieces have some long and surprising stories attached.

Some of the pieces were donated. Some she made from patterns. Many she found at thrift stores and reworked into something else.

"Fashion has always repeated itself through history," Manire says, and that makes it easy to recycle or rework one period piece to fit another. For instance, the 1970s obsession with puffed sleeves and high necks fits perfectly with late Victorian era clothing. A 1980s prom dress makes an ideal princess gown.

While building her collection, she made frequent trips to thrift stores, picking up one garment for its colorful trim, another for its buttons.

Spencer Sutterfield, a theater teacher at Parkview High who has worked closely with Manire for the last nine years, says that on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, "it was amazing what she did with buttons and scraps of fur."

Manire says, "I consider myself an artist first and a seamstress last. I don't like taking someone else's pattern and creating something. I'm more inclined to want to do it myself. I kind of see costuming as sculpture more than dressmaking. I see it as three-dimensional art rather than as a garment."

With her house bursting at the seams, she now keeps thrift store trips to a minimum and works from what she has. When she can. Every now and then there's something like Spamalot at The Weekend Theater, where some of the "iconic images" had to be made from scratch.

In late summer, her living room looks almost like a normal room. Just those dressed up mannequins and a couple of clothing racks -- the costumes from Weekend Theater's production of The Drowsy Chaperone waiting to be cleaned, sorted and put back in their spots.

"Generally, you can't see any of my living room," she says. "A couple of weeks at Christmas and in July is when this looks like a room."

There is method in the madness, organization in the chaos. Everything is labeled. All the clothing is sorted by time period or style.

"I'm a real Type-A person," Manire says. "An artist isn't generally a Type A. That's also a challenge when I work with real flakes. I love them, but I'm not flaky!"

These days, with double-, triple-, even quadruple-booked weekends, she can't always be as involved in a production as she likes. Her collection is still available, but shows have independent costume designers who do much of the heavy lifting and hands-on work.

The costumer for Murry's Dinner Playhouse's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers made multiple trips picking up and dropping off pioneer clothing.

But it's the personal connection and hands-on, collaborative aspect of theater that feeds Manire's artistic spirit: "I didn't follow up with my sculptures and things because that's a lonely art. I need the connection with people. That's stressful but also rewarding.

"You can get a kid or adult that's struggling a little bit with their character.

"They don the costume and all of a sudden, it's part of the magic and it helps a person find their character, and I love to do that."


Sheridan Posey, the drama teacher at Pulaski Academy since 2015, has worked on three shows with Manire and says, "Being a new teacher, she helped me navigate. She was always there with advice and a helping hand and just very proactive to make sure our shows were the best they could be."

Being a costumer has had its challenges, particularly when two schools decide to do the same show at the same time.

"Then I have to say, 'Where's my allegiance?' I tend to stay with folks I've worked with the longest because they're family."

And personalities can be troublesome, particularly when a director or teacher allows diva behavior to thrive: "I pretty much nip that in the bud. I try to point out that it's not all about them. It is an ensemble."

When rented pieces come back, they have to be cleaned. This year she kept count. From early March to mid-May, she took 450 articles to the dry cleaners ("That's why the dry cleaners love me!").

She washed even more items than that. When she has a big show or multiple shows, she usually takes them to the laundromat, otherwise she'd be doing laundry for days.

She credits her husband, Steve, for machine sewing and doing a lot of heavy lifting, and she has other helpers during crunch times, but it's still a lot of work.

Now in her mid-60s, Manire is looking ahead to her eventual retirement and will soon need to scale back. But that makes some of her frequent collaborators nervous.

She says, "I have people saying, 'What are we going to do in a few years when you're not here? Where's your stuff going to go? What's going to happen?' So I'm just musing about what I can do with my stuff."

Pulaski Tech has expressed interest in buying Manire's inventory, and she could always sell it on the internet, but her goal, in line with her philosophy as an artist, is to keep her treasures in circulation, available to all.

Sutterfield says, "It makes sense that she is not just thinking about one school or one institution but she's trying to figure out how to take her life's work related to costuming and help it be available to everyone even after she retires."

Through her collaborations with multiple groups, Manire has seen a lot of waste: groups building, buying or looking for items that another group spent time and money on a year or two before. Like the Mona Lisa portrait for Annie or the tiered mattresses for Once Upon a Mattress.

She envisions a consortium or cooperative as the answer to the inefficiency, and as a new home for her collection. Her costumes and the set and prop collections of other groups would be pooled in one climate-controlled facility where, with direction from a board, it could be stored, organized and shared by all the participating groups.

"I see the inefficiency of all the stuff people have," she says. "I also see, sadly, especially in the education situation, that the arts are being squeezed and squeezed. It's a way to prosper and grow rather than struggle and worry," she says of her idea.

A cooperative would be a huge undertaking. And one of the key things the plan would require would be some sort of sponsor or benefactor to provide the facility and financial backing to make it work. It would also require an army of volunteers. People with talents in sewing, organization or set building could donate their time and talents while theater students could benefit from hands-on work study programs and internships.

Then there's the chance to teach fashion history in a tangible way through the racks full of vintage and period pieces, foreign fashions and her collection of antique clothing too delicate to be worn on stage.

A cooperative would be a convenient place for donations when someone is cleaning out a closet or when a for-profit Equity theater has to retire its costumes.

It would take money, but Manire has several ideas for how the cooperative could help pay for itself with special projects, including Halloween costume rentals, costumed delivery services, dress-up parties and themed costume photo shoots.

Manire isn't picky.

"It doesn't matter to me how it gets done," she says. "I just think it would be a great thing."

She's not the only one who thinks so.

Posey says, "I would love to find space [at Pulaski Academy] for it because it's such a wonderful idea."

Sutterfield says, "It would be a huge asset to the central Arkansas theater community. Hopefully we will have been able to get this set up and there will be a structure in place, but if not, we may just not let her retire!"

Manire's dream is that all schools and community groups, regardless of financial situations, can have equal footing when it comes to theater, and that her work over the last 16 years can facilitate that.

"I have this real strong feeling about wanting for all to have access to what I do," she says. "It's my legacy."

Style on 08/16/2016

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