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Mummer Jim Werner on Glitter, Glue and Standing Tall in Sequins

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Image credit: HughE Dillon
The Mummers are getting ready to make their annual march down Broad Street on Tuesday, and while they may look silly to some, the months of preparation and practice leading up to big event are serious business. A longtime member of the Polish American String Band, Jim Werner takes a break from the feathers and sequins to answer the costume-related questions we all want to know but are too embarrassed to ask (no, the costumes don't itch!)

What elements and adornments "make or break" a Mummer costume?
First, you need to start with how the parade is broken up. The parade has five divisions (Comics, Wench Brigades, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades), and each one has its own costume personality. For instance, the Comics' most important costuming element is pop culture relevance, while an umbrella, glitzy dress, and golden slippers are essential to the Wench outfit. The Fancy Division typically signals the most elaborate part of the parade, with large floats, bright colors, sequins, and glitter.

What's one costume element that no Mummer leaves home without?
No Mummer is fully dressed without golden "slippers," which often come in the form of spray-painted sneakers or boots. (Little-known fact: underneath each parader's dress, you'll find Under Armor.)

Who makes the costumes? How long do they take to make?
I am in a String Band, so from here on out, I'll focus on them. String Bands rely on professional seamstresses. The process takes months. From design to finished product, the process could easily last six months—especially since each club has 60+members, and the costumer is producing all of the suits.

How do you decide on a design?
The first step is to pick a theme. That happens right after the New Year. Then, we hire a designer who sketches ideas for a committee, which weighs them against music and choreography. The costumes must allow enough room to dance and play music comfortably (we hope). Music, choreography, and costumes are judged together, so they should play off each other.

How long does it take you to get dressed before the parade?
It depends on the costume and how extensive the makeup is—I would even say the makeup, more than the costumes, determines that. One year, we chose a haunted theme, and the makeup was over-the-top theatrical, extending our prep time to five hours. Other years, we just use basic pancake makeup to darken the faces slightly for the TV lights at City Hall. That takes just a few minutes to apply—but 60 times over. Prep time for simpler years averages an hour or two.

What's your personal favorite part of getting dressed for the parade?
Putting on the first part of the costume in the early morning—that's when you know its real. It just hits you: It's New Years Day! And you have a chance, just like everyone else, to actually win the parade. You don't know what the rest of the year will bring, but for the next 24 hours, you just celebrate what you've thought about for the last 364 days.

What's your least-liked part of getting dressed?
Glitter! The makeup artist usually applies glitter to our faces once all the foundation is on. It's a terrible process that includes hairspray and tons of glitter sprinkled directly to your face. And it takes days to come off.

Do you ever feel silly?
For the most part, no. The number-one priority on New Year's Day is to entertain. If you're making people laugh, you're doing it right. Nothing to feel silly about.

What do your wives/significant others think of you in the costumes?
I like to think they get a kick out of it. I imagine it's just as fulfilling for them. People may not know this, but they are the ones who help apply the makeup and glitter and build props, so our loved ones are just as much a part of it as the members.

With all their bells and whistles, do the costumes get heavy? Do they itch?
Extremely heavy. Keep in mind they are lined to keep out the cold of January 1st. Thankfully, they don't itch.

What do you do in case of a "costume emergency"? Is there some sort of emergency patch kit that you keep on-site?
Staple guns and hot glue!

Are the costumes passed down from generation to generation?
Generally speaking, no. Comic brigades have used old String Band and Fancy Brigade costumes. And Fancy clubs are permitted to use old floats, but they must present a new float each year. Up until last year the official rules that govern the String Bands dictated that we were not permitted to use old costumes. Times are changing, and groups are recycling.

Where are the costumes stored in the off-season?
Most clubs have a central clubhouse where everything is stored. If not, you take them home.

Are the costumes and floats insured?
Every club conducts their own business. My club does insure our property, including the costumes.
· The Polish American String Band [Official Site]
· Philly Mummers [Official Site]

City Hall

1 E Penn Sq Philadelphia, PA