Break-Away Dress – Chicago

Aug 17, 2021 | Theatrical Costumes

In the show “Chicago”, Mary Sunshine is a really fun character. “She” is a conservative church-y lady with an operatic voice. The twist is that this role is traditionally played by a male actor. The show includes a scene where Ms. Sunshine’s dress breaks away and “her” secret is revealed. So, this costume includes two challenges: (1) making the actor appear feminine until the reveal, and (2) making the dress a break-away that can be easily pulled off on stage.

Base dress selection

I installed the break-away mechanism for this costume in the center back of the dress, so I needed a base dress with a center back seam. I wanted a dress with some type of sleeve, so the actor’s shoulders would be hidden. Visible biceps can give away the secret too soon. I prefer a short sleeve (at most elbow length). A long sleeve would potentially make the break-away scene much more difficult.

I purchased the base dress for this costume from Amazon. However, a dress made from less stretchy fabric, with a more snug fit, would have made the reveal easier – live and learn. The stretch fabric and loose style made our reveal more difficult than it could have been. A tighter dress with less stretch would have had less “give” to get in the way when the actor pulled off the dress. Here’s an example of a style of dress that would work well for this costume.

To help camouflage the male figure in the dress, I also added a scarf draped over (sewed to) the shoulders of the dress. This worked well to help conceal what was going on underneath.

Break-away dress construction

To construct any break-away costume, I first join the costume pieces to make everything into one unit. This allows the costume to break away with one motion.

The female illusion

For the Mary Sunshine costume, this meant first attaching some structure to make the actor appear to be female. I went to a local discount store, and purchased a cheap bra in a DD size. The band measurement (number size) of the bra didn’t matter, because the back band would be cut away. I purchased a small foam “Nerf”-type sports ball, which I cut in half with a serrated bread knife. Then I glued each ball half into a bra cup.

The next step was to attach the bra to the dress. I had the actor try on the stuffed bra with the dress over it. I pinned the shoulder straps to the shoulder seam of the dress, and pinned the bra sides to the side seams of the dress. Keeping the pins intact, I removed the dress and securely machine-sewed the bra to the dress at the pinned points. Thsnk I cut away the back of the bra and the straps beyond the stitching.

A scarf to hide things

I added a scarf to the dress to help hide the fact that the actor was a dude. I draped the scarf on the dress the way it would be worn. This was  more easily done while the actor wore the costume. I pinned the scarf in place at each shoulder, and a couple of places around the neckline, then tacked (sewed) the scarf in place at the pinned spots.

Adding the break-away

Once everything was sewn to the base dress, I measured from the side seams to find the center back of the dress. I drew a line along the entire center back of the dress and scarf with tailor chalk. A fabric marker could also be used. Once I was satisfied that I had a straight line in the exact center, I cut along the chalk line, starting at the hemline and cutting through the neckline and scarf. Along the new cut, I basted the center back scarf edge to the center back dress edge, aligning the neck edges. Then, I applied snap tape to the two sides of the cut, sewing through both the dress and the scarf. You can find instructions for how I apply snap tape here

Accessorizing

To complete the look, I added a large broach to the front of the scarf, and added a church-lady hat and white gloves to the costume.

Operating the break-away

The actor wore the break-away dress with all snaps closed, over an oversized pair of flannel boxers and a white tank-style undershirt. I sewed the boxers fly opening shut for modesty.

When the time came for the break-away scene, the actor grabbed the dress firmly by the center front, and pull vigorously. The dress (and all attached pieces) broke away and dropped to reveal the boxers and and tank.