Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mme Berthe of Broadway


Madame Berthe was a New York costumier who worked between the 1930s to the 1970s.
She is credited as designing the costumes for the 1944 Broadway Variety show, Take a Bow and for the 1932 musical revue, Hey Nonny Nonny! which played at the Shubert Theatre.
Mme Berthe is also linked to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo when in 1940  Leonide Massine was artistic director of the company having taken over from
Massine collaborated with The New Yorker illustrator, Rea Irvine using his illustrations as inspiration for characters in the ballet while Mme Berthe executed the designs.
Judging by the three costumes I have collected, her designs are made with an attention to detail and made to endure; strong foundations, thick layers of fabric, heavy duty zips and hand sewn clusters of beads and crystals.

Mme Berthe dress, with Grace Cherry and Lady Lola. Hobart 2010 Photo by Ella B

 Suzy Benzinger a current costume designer for Broadway remembers Mme Berthe from the 1970's as one of the major costumiers in New York.

Mme Berthe's signature labels shows her at 110 West 47th st

This black corset is from the 1950's. It is made in layers of thick cotton, whale boning and black silk. 
It is finished with glass beading, sequins and lace. 
The edges are scalloped with modesty panels at the front and back illusion lace over the bust.


Photo courtesy of the seller
Photo courtesy of the seller

The seller was unsure if the original belt has been switched out for the heavily sequined belt, I found a photo of a similar costume by Mme Berth which had a similar bodysuit and the same belt.
The seller had purchased the costume from MGM in California.

Three costumes auctioned off in 2008 under 'Broadway costumes' one is credited to Mme Berthe
Mme Berthe knickers from the United States. Seller had no information on provenance.

Mme Berthe knickers- nylon mesh and rhinestone

This Tag lists Mme Berthe at 539 Broadway- New York

Zip at back

My favourite item is another Etsy find. The seller was based in Hollywood and didn't know much about the provenance. She listed the dress under vintage burlesque which is how I found it...


Mme Berthe fishtail gown
The yellow gown is heavy, The hem is lined with weights to keep the tulle inserts that flare the fishtails down. The bead work is exquisite, sequins, seed pearls, pronged crystals, gold glass bugle beeds and clusters of wispy silken flowers and white leaves, hand cut and hand sewen on the beaded panels.
It is boned through the bodice and has a heavy duty metal zip at the rear. The fabric is chiffon on top of silk.

Photo by Bret Salinger The 2011 Australian Burlesque Festival
The gown was gifted to me and after some use in shows, I no longer wear it on stage as it is very fragile... But I do use it in photoshoots... A recent shoot below...

Photo by Bret Salinger

Photo by Bret Salinger

8 comments:

  1. I just found your site, and loved looking at the photos - yes, these certainly look like vintage Mme. Berthe costumes. You see, the style is familiar because she was my grandmother! In the 1960's, when I was a girl, we'd visit her at 110 W 47th Street, which we'd refer to simply as "The Place." She was my loving grandma, and I have her blue eyes. It was amazing to see these costumes here on your site! very best, Jessica Roemischer
    p.s. I see that you're Australian - I have a fond connection with the country because so is my husband :-)

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    1. Jessica! That's amazing! I struggled to find a lot of information on the internet, the next time I'm in the US I was going to go to the Lincoln PA library and see if there were any sketches there!
      I adore the items I have, they have survived well. What an amazing childhood that would have been! All the best, Lucy (Sarah)

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    2. Hi Sarah, So wonderful to receive your reply! It's great that you're a fan of my grandmother. She made amazing costumes. I understand that she never used patterns (there may be sketches, though), and cut freehand for the model. I recently had a chance to go through memorabilia from my her 50+ years as a theatrical costumer in New York and Las Vegas. It was amazing to see what she'd done - I'd known about some of her work with the prominent night clubs at the time, but there was a lot more I didn't know! I found her name--Mme Berthe Costumes--listed in programs from the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., the Broadway shows, "No, No Nanette" and "How to Succeed in Business," for performances with Tellulah Bankhead, Vincent Minelli productions, Liza Minelli, Lena Horne, a signed playbill from Mercer Ellington (my grandma did Duke Ellington's suits), photos of Lou Walters' (Barbara Walters' father) productions at the Latin Quarter in NY, she did the costumes for the first Radio City Music Hall show on Dec 27th, 1932, telegrams from Betty Grable, articles from the New York Times, and more. She helped make theatrical and musical history during the mid-twentieth century, though she was little more than 5 feet tall and less than fluent in English. (She came from Russia in 1919.) BUT, as we always knew....she was determined!! I was just remembering with my brother the wonderful and unique Halloween costumes she made. One year, I was a cat - she made a full-length costume for me with a hood and ears and black and white sequined spots and black tail, another year I was a pumpkin/ballerina with a tutu with orange pumpkins sequined on it. My brother was a bat one year and Superman another (she made the first Superman costume, I believe). So these are some details. It's wonderful that you appreciate her work - it's helped evoke memories of her for me! I'll share our correspondence and your blog post with my mom, too. If you perform in the States, let me know. I'll be in Oz before too long, myself! Very best wishes always, Jessica

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  2. Hi Jessica,

    my private email is 'lucyskyburlesque@gmail.com' I don't know if you'd be willing to share some scans of the memorabilia but if you could I would be indebted to you! I found it difficult to learn a lot about her even though I could tell she must have been prolific! I love the pieces I've been able to purchase and I'll keep my eye out for more. I'd be happy to send you links whenever I find items as well jsut in case! I hope you've kept the cat costume, it sounds delightful!

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  3. Hi Sarah,
    I wish I'd kept the cat costume!! And the pumpkin one, too. Oh well, there are emboldened in my memory. Things are a little chaotic at the moment, with a lot of family health issues. I'll be happy to send you a scan of the New York Times article, at least. You may also be able to find it online. It's lovely to share this appreciation for my grandma. We all called her Tima because I couldn't pronounce grandma when I was little. So there we are---you're helping to rekindle my appreciation for her, my loving Tima! Let's stay in touch. We will be settling, at least part-time, in Oz in the next year or two - most likely Byron Bay area. It's my true home. So nice that you're from there! Warm wishes, Jessica

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  4. Hello. I just found out about your blog yesterday. My first job was with Madame Berthe in the 60s. I can still see this tiny Russian woman with a cube of sugar in her cheek drinking tea. At this time, she was at 1639 Broadway. She did the costumes for The Latin Quarter owned by Lou Walters, Barbara Walters father. She also worked with Donn Arden, the choreographer of the day, who worked in Las Vegas when Las Vegas was really Las Vegas. If one needed an exquisite costume , you came to Madame Berthe - all the beading on her costumes were hand embroidered. It was an amazing time and I was very young. I'm assuming Jessica is Miriam's daughter. Great memories. Thank you
    Marlena

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  6. Hi, I just bought a beautiful top of hers yesterday at a Greg Thompson theater sale, purely because of how amazing it was (I don't perform). His wife said they got it in a lot they bought in PA for their revue shows. She said it was the top half of a dress with a chiffon skirt which "died". It is so beautiful, nude background corset with elaborate floral beading. This is the only site I can find for her work which is a shame. I can't decide whether to sell it or not, is there a museum that wants these?

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