Machine Dazzle, a costume designer treated like an artist.

Machine Dazzle walks with me through some 80 of his fabulously intricate costumes on display at the opening day of his solo exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design, to one of some two dozen he created for Taylor Mac in “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” one for each decade of American history. Anybody who has attended a play or performance by the acclaimed theater artist over the last 15 years is likely to have seen Machine Dazzle’s costumes, from Mac’s “The Lily’s Revenge” to “The Fre” to “The Hang,” but none were more spectacular than for the, award-winning, once-in-a-lifetime  24-hour theatrical event, in which Machine Dazzle appeared hourly on stage to help Mac undress from one era and dress for the next.

Now Dazzle stands in front of the costume he designed for Decade 10: 1866-1876, draped over a mannikin. Earlier, at an hour-long talk at the museum, he had described his approach to design for period costumes: “It’s easy enough to research what people were wearing at the time. That’s the easy thing, and that’s what most costume designers would do. But there was so much more going on than what people were wearing at the time.” The decade after the Civil War saw the invention of dynamite, and the typewriter, and Levi’s jeans….and toilet paper. And so there they all are – a huge red headdress festooned with toilet paper and sticks of dynamite, a dress of hand-size typewriter keys. Why so much fruit? It was time for dinner. (The photograph of Mac wearing the costume is at a later production, when it didn’t mark dinner time, so they took off the fruit.)
This 1860s look didn’t particularly stick out in a show whose other costumes routinely featured found objects (aka trash), blinking lights, elaborate headdresses. There was a wig made of wine corks, a dress made of empty potato chip bags, and an ensemble comprised of cassette tapes — and everywhere, always, a surfeit of sequins.

Machine Dazzle was born Matthew Flower in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and at the age of 22, after getting an art degree at the University of Boulder, bought a one-way ticket to New York — a city he had never even visited. Nearly three decades later, no other theatrical costume designer has made their mark in New York in anywhere near the same way. If the claim might seem (like his costumes) excessive, the evidence is right there in his first-ever solo exhibition, at the Museum of Art and Design through February 19, and in the accompanying hard-cover catalogue, Queer Maximalism X Machine Dazzle (Rizzoli,160 pages.) Feel free to ignore the artspeak of the title, and in some of the nine essays in the catalogue. His costumes speak for themselves.

Clockwise from top left: Machine Dazzle in 2002 wearing one of his costumes; Taylor Mac getting dressed by MD in 2016 at “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music”; three costumes from the exhibition “Queer Maximalism X Machine Dazzle” at the Museum of Art and Design through February 19, 2023

Yet there’s also something gratifying about Machine Dazzle getting the full art world treatment, not typical for theatrical costume designers.  “There’s a difference between design and art,” he tells me. “Design is making decisions. Art is something else.”

That’s why he enjoys working on costumes for Taylor Mac more than for any conventional theater director. “Taylor doesn’t tell me what to do. Taylor is reinventing what theater can be, and that’s what I want to be a part of.”

The exhibition at MAD offers sparse wall labels and is so crowded together with the designer’s costumes that they are hard initially to take in. But one can say the same things about each individual piece.  To label a Machine Dazzle costume “camp” or “drag” is to offer only a partial view of what theater scholar Kalle Westerling (one of the catalogue contributors) likens to a “miniature landscape” and  a “living sculpture.” It’s a  work of worn art that often overwhelms and confuses audience members. But we are also “wowed, delighted, and inspired by the way it awakens our senses,” writes  Elissa Auther, exhibition curator and catalogue editor, because of the “clever unification of heterogeneous materials…that seamlessly integrate objects that would otherwise appear a jumble.”

His creations seem so different from the usual costumes in New York theatrical productions, some so delicate, some so unwieldy. I ask him: How do the costumes – and the actors in them — withstand the wear and tear of daily performances? 

“I repair the costumes every day,” he replies. “And the performers have to learn how to handle it. It’s the design.”

On the far left corner of wall of the exhibition that has his early memorabilia and art work, Dazzle shows me a headdress — “you can wear around your neck, or around your waist too” — made of the plastic caps to old-fashioned glass milk bottles. To indicate the milk was homogenized, the caps were printed by the manufacturer with the word “HOMO.” Is there any better illustration of what it was like to grow up queer and creative in clueless Middle America?

Little Matthew, we’re told, came by his aesthetic from an early age. He snuck into a movie theater to watch “Xanadu” when he was eight, and then begged his parents to take him to The Nutcracker when he was 10.  “I’d never seen live performance; I never knew it was possible,” he tells Justin Vivian Bond in a Q&A interview in the book. “There were objects brought to life. People moving in gorgeous, beautiful fabrics and it was really, really happening….’that’s where I want to be’…It took me until I moved to New York to make it happen.” 

 As a new New Yorker, he joined a dance troupe whose members had been similarly smitten by “Xanadu.” They were the Dazzle Dancers, whose motto was “Having fun is a political act,”  according to co-founder  Mike Albo, one of the contributors to the catalogue. They considered themselves a family and so decided to share a family name. Albo called himself Dazzle Dazzle. A fellow member, Cornflake Dazzle, watched the 6’5 Flower move one night at the nightclub Squeezebox, and proclaimed: “You are a dancing machine.” Hence Machine Dazzle. He didn’t just dance with them; he costumed them. “He became more adept at manipulating fabric,” Albo recalls, “and the glitter-and-glue encrusted quality he created became our signature style.”

Dazzle has always been a performer as well as a costume designer, and he’s lately been branching out even further, to writing songs and creating shows. He told Bond he sees Patti Smith as a role model. “She understands the layering of history, poetry and melody to create meaning. I do that with my costumes, which I have often thought of as songs, and now I want to do it with my own songwriting and shows.”

Machine Dazzle with the costumes from A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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