Handmade: Dolly ‘lookin’ swell’ in volunteers’ designs

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Well-known New York City matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, the lead character in “Hello, Dolly!,” currently being performed by the Grosse Pointe Theatre (GPT) at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial Theater, commands the stage in elaborate beaded and hand-painted gowns with “three layers of ruffling on the petticoat.” And to top off her amazing Victorian-inspired costumes, she wears ornate hats and a huge headdress, heavily embellished with pheasant feathers.

Any performance production set in a particular time period wouldn’t be the same without costumes created in the styles of the era. Twenty-two volunteer designers and seamstresses created a total of 130 period costumes for the theater’s production of the award-winning musical. Among them are four co-chairs: Ginger Hupp and Maryann Bury (both of Grosse Pointe), Fiona Parker (Grosse Pointe Park), and Cindy Pytel (Grosse Pointe Woods). And working alongside them are a young girl who’s a high school freshman, some volunteers who do only hand-sewing, and others who can build a whole costume. Hupp says, “One went from making aprons to (doing) turn-of-the century jackets.”

Hupp, 65, who’s been sewing since she was 5 and later took a millinery course at Stratford, is lead co-chair, and responsible for selecting fabric, buying decorative trim, men’s hats, accessories, parasols and shoes. They built spats for both the men and women, and hats for women using wire frames. Each entire costume is a reproduction, inspired by garments and accessories worn around the turn of the 20th century. Much of the jewelry is donated and taken apart to “make something more suitable for the show.” Hupp says, “I generally budget $150 per costume. The men’s cost less, and the women’s cost more, typically.

“We have some vintage patterns that we buy from the internet, and we build from that,” continues Hupp. “We have a lot of images from historical photos from historical museums’ collections that we use as jumping off points for designing costumes, but we might take the bodice from one dress and put it on the bodice of another dress, not meaning that we’re taking apart existing pieces, but when choosing design details.”

Although the dresses are “highly structured,” the women wear corsets underneath them. The designers used to make the corsets, but now they’re able to buy them, and they’re constructed with steel boning. Hupp says, “Thank goodness for the internet. It saves us hours.”

Weeks prior to the opening, costumes were being constructed everyday with “the four co-chairs working seven days a week, sometimes 10 hours a day for about 10 weeks.” They work on both donated sewing machines that have been refurbished, and those they purchased new. “We have six or seven on the table at the same time, and generally, we have about six women working at a time. People come when they have time,” remarks Hupp.

Designers worked hard to get the costumes to “fit really well,” Hupp says, “We build them to endure on the stage, and to be easily alterable for the next time they’re used. All of the bodices are three layers. There will be an underlayer, a lining and the fashion fabric.” Additionally, all the skirts are lined and have petticoat ruffling underneath.

Once the actors take their final bow, bringing a close to the theater’s 68th season, the costumes will then be stored at the theater and rented out. Hupp says, “Sometimes we can do a whole show, and sometimes we rent an individual costume.”

(There are more than 400 volunteers, from all walks of life throughout southeast Michigan, working behind the scenes for the GPT to make it all happen.)

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

Contact the Grosse Pointe Theatre at (313) 881-4004 or

“Hello Dolly!”

Grosse Pointe War Memorial Theater

32 Lake Shore Dr., Grosse Pointe Farms

May 13-21 (8 p.m. evenings, 2 p.m. Sunday)

All tickets: $24. Parking: free.