Who wants to be a milliner? Lynne Mackey. And she’s Broadway’s best.
Lynne Mackey was mortified by the garb her mother made—the skirts and frocks, the peach-colored gown for the Junior Prom. “I would have given anything for store-bought clothes,” she recalls with a cringe. But thanks to the threads of fate, she picked up her own needle and became Broadway’s head milliner. Although some showbizzers consider the designing of costumery more important than the building of it—and the bottom more important than the top—Mackey, 58, is not among them. “The hat,” she declares, “is the punctuation mark at the end of the picture.”
A Mackey hat is a thing of art and history—retrieving the American ’50s for Damn Yankees, the French Revolution for The Scarlet Pimpernel, the disco/drag world for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, legend for Spamalot, fairy tale for Shrek. “My best sources are books written 100 years ago on things like how to cover the brim,” she says. “But there’s nothing like holding the hat in your hand.” So off to the Pier Antiques Shows, flea markets, vintage sales, and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, which proved invaluable when making The Heiress’s bonnet—an exquisite confection of taffeta lace and vintage glass berries that was pure 1860s and “light as a feather.”
Speaking of feathers: the shelves of her West Side shop all but flutter with ostrich and pheasant, white turkey and vulture, goose and hen...and a box marked BAD LUCK: the alias for peacock feathers! “Some actors won’t wear them,” she explains, “especially eye of the peacock. It’s considered the evil eye.” (Non-eye parts are fine.) Boxes of butterflies and jewels, veilings and velvet bindings. Cartons labeled “Mamma Mia Swim Caps,” “Beauty & the Beast Tour,” “Wicked Mob women.” Rows of head blocks, crown blocks, and brim blocks.
The hat must co-exist with wig and mic pack. “A lot depends on your wigmaker,” she says. “Some wigs are heavier than others. The more hair, the more likely the hat will change shape.” (And with The Color Purple, there’s even more hair than that, since many in the cast wear weaves and dreads under the wigs.) The sound people get touchy about mics being muffled. The lighting people add their own colors. And then there are the choreographers, who care more about taps than tops. “Physics are at work here,” she says. “We can’t change gravity.” But she tries. While the Rockettes will prance through the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in white fur bandeaux that “sit back far enough so when they kick up their legs and tilt their heads, they’ll stay on,” other occasions demand the magnet and toupee clip. How else could Mary Poppins keep her lid on as she sails above the crowd, or Cyrano clamber down from balcony to stage, or ABT’s Sugar Plum Fairy pirouette through The Nutcracker?
As a child, Lynne was a whiz at math and science but slow to read. The first book she enjoyed (at 25!) was the costumey Count of Monte Cristo. “Maybe I’m dyslexic,” she says, which may have killed her dream of becoming a surgeon but didn’t stop her from cutting up other things and sewing them together. Her mother crafted napkin holders that looked like Easter bunnies and Santa Clauses. Her father loved opera and took her to the Met. Lynne remembers Hansel and Gretel, if not their hats, and followed her own path via Carnegie Mellon. Starting from the ground up, she built boots and shoes for A.C.T. in San Francisco, but other peoples’ feet repelled her. Thence to gloves and gauntlets for the Long Wharf in New Haven. And up to hats in Anchorage, for a heady year with the Alaska Repertory, where, between homburgs and boaters, she dog-sledded and hot-air-ballooned before finding herself, in every way, in New York.
A hat begins with a sketch from the costume designer and talk of form and function. Measurements, a pattern, then a Mackey mock-up of muslin, straw, or paper to determine shape and scale. Sure, she had to make three different mock-ups for Sutton Foster’s one navy straw in Anything Goes, and yes, she kept her cool during A Little Night Music when Elaine Stritch insisted on wearing the mock-up itself—but these things happen.
There are few materials she won’t use, and some she absolutely must. Hair and head pieces for Disney on Ice are polyester or nylon, meaning waterproof, due to sweat and shaved ice. Big tops and small tops for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus folk have more specific needs, such as being “tiger-urine-proof.” In calm and catastrophe, Lynne finds the proper solution (or solvent), even when she mistakenly sprays a Kiss Me, Kate straw not with lacquer but with glue.
Then onto the stage, and into the fray. For every Patti LuPone who cherishes her Gypsy chapeaux and Alfred Molina his Fiddler cap, there are legions who treat theirs like props—mistaking the hat for a fan, perhaps, or wringing the brim. And no matter how well-placed the cloche on a flapper’s forehead, she’ll invariably push it back to display her face. Worse, the players come off, toss their hats in a hamper, and, yikes!, their costumes on top! Not to mention the dressing room. “Whenever we start a show, we always ask who the wardrobe mistress is going to be,” Mackey says, “and build accordingly.”
And what of the milliner herself? Does she wear a hat?
“No!” says she, patting her wavy brown do. “I get hat hair! But in winter, I wear earmuffs.”
Ellen Stern was a writer and editor at New York, GQ, and The Daily News. She is the author of Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence.