Mama Morton Costume – Chicago

Aug 17, 2021 | Theatrical Costumes

Costume Design

Mama Morton is my favorite character to costume for Chicago. She is a self-assured “business” woman. Mama takes care of the inmates in her care like they are her own daughters – as long as they are able to pay for her help.

The actor playing Mama Morton in the high school version that I costumed was almost six fabulous feet tall. It wasn’t hard to make her appear an imposing figure. I put her in grey, to give the impression of a prison worker. This also helped her blend with the black and white jail robes the inmates wore in scenes with her. A few ruffles and ribbons seemed appropriate for her costume, to reflect her “softer” side. Including a corset added a sexy note to her costume.

I was really pleased with the costume we were able to put together using ready-made pieces found on Amazon: 

Costume Pieces

Chicago Mama Morton Skirt from Amazon

Jacket – (The Black version would also be appropriate)

Chicago Mama Morton Jacket from Amazon

Altering the Corset

For any corset that will be used to dance on stage, I begin with two standard alterations: (1) Replacing any hooks with a zipper, and (2) Replacing the modesty panel with stretch fabric.

Replacing hooks with a zipper

This corset came with a lace-up panel at the center back. The purpose of this panel is to allow spot-adjustments of the size. The panel allows the dresser to pull in for a smaller waist and to let out to accomodate a more ample bust. 

It also had a row of hooks that served to close the garment. I always replace these hooks with a zipper. Otherwise the hooks can open during dance numbers, leaving the actor exposed on-stage. To do this, I removed the hooks on both sides, and replaced them with a separating zipper the same length as the corset.

The hooks are connected to a spine that is enclosed in the seam. I ripped out the seam on the enclosure, and removed the entire spine (with the hooks attached). Then, I re-sewed the seam and inserted the zipper, sewing the zipper tape to the inside of the corset. I aligned the zipper teeth to each side of the opening before stitching the zipper.

Replacing the modesty panel with a stretch panel

Corsets are attractive, and look good on almost any figure type. But they are very rigid garments, that don’t allow for much movement. A corset will function much better for a dancer, or an actor with big moves, if stretch is added to the garment. 

This corset (as with most purchased corsets) was made with an extra flap of fabric under the lacing ribbons. The flap is designed to provide some coverage to the wearer if the lacing spreads. The best way to add stretch to a purchased corset is to replace this modesty panel with a panel of stretch fabric.

First, I remove the panel by either ripping out the seam that attaches it to the corset, or cut the flap very close to the stitching. I prefer to remove it completely, to remove the extra bulk from the garment. Then, I put the corset on the actor, close the zipper, and adjust the laces until the corset fits the actor correctly. To mark the correct fit, I tied the laces in a secure knot.

Back in my sewing space, I cut a panel of stretch fabric the width of the laces opening + 5 inches, and the length of the corset + 4 inches. I placed the stretch panel under the laces. I stretched the laces out flat, and sewed the edges of the panel (by machine) to the corset. When doing this, avoid sewing through any boning, ribbons, or hardware. If you can’t sew a straight seam and also avoid hardware, sew wherever you can.

I needed to hand-tack the seam in some of the areas where you can’t machine-sew. The important thing was to securely attach the stretch panel on both sides of the opening, so that a hard tug didn’t pull the panel loose.

I trimmed the extra fabric on the stretch panel to about ½ inch from the seam, and trimmed the top and bottom of stretch panel even with the corset.

Shoulder straps

To make a strapless corset more secure, it’s a good idea to add a neck strap or shoulder straps to keep the corset from slipping down. I use flesh-colored mesh elastic, usually making one halter-style strap that goes from one front side of the corset, around the back of the neck of the actor, to the other front side of the corset. If possible, I tack this using a zig-zag machine stitch with a close stitch setting. If I’m not able to do this by machine, I stitch a strong tack by hand.

Skirt Length Alterations

Even with a taller-than-average actor in the role of Mama Morton, this skirt was too long and needed altering. With all of the detail and ruffles at the bottom, the easiest way to shorten this skirt was to remove length from the top. 

To shorten the skirt from the top, I first removed the lace-up ribbon on the top side of the skirt. I then removed the waistband from the skirt, and removed the zipper. I cut 3” off of the top of the skirt piece, being careful to cut between the lace-up eyelets. I re-sewed the waistband to the new top of the skirt, and replaced the ribbon in the lace-up eyelets. Then, I shortened the zipper (using the technique described here), and re-installed the shortened zipper, with the top of the zipper flush with the top of the waistband.