Even though she grew up in Germantown, Briana Bailey has only been to one Mummers parade. It was always a bit too cold for her liking. But earlier this year, the 26-year-old found herself watching the Mummers channel for a week straight, studying every move they made — and every piece of fabric draping their bodies.
“I sat there with my niece over a week and she was a year old,” Bailey explained, “and if she liked what they were wearing, I made a note of it. Then I started sketching.”
Bailey, a fashion design student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, designed a captain’s outfit for the leader of the Greater Overbrook String Band as part of a competition at her school. Her design won, and now she’s in the process of working with legendary South Philly Mummers costumer Al DelBuono to bring her sketch to life. And the Overbrook band captain will wear her design on New Years Day.
The partnership between the Greater Overbrook String Band and the Art Institute of Philadelphia is the first of its kind — between Mummers and a local school — and started out when the group of Mummers wanted to get its captain’s suit specially designed for their Hawaiian-themed performance set for New Years Day. Through mutual connections, the string band formed a partnership with the school and nine students spent their free time sketching out designs for the captain’s suit.
Band captain Bill Razzano, of South Philly, admitted there’s risk involved with putting something as important to a Mummers’ performance as the captain’s suit in the hands of a student. But they rose to the challenge.
“This different approach with the Art Institute, it really worked,” Razzano said. “You take a chance with students, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. But I had faith that they would be great.”
Suits for captains alone can run well over $3,000, Razzano said, and the string band is covering the costs of the actual fabrication of the design. If you’re wondering what the suits look like, here’s the Greater Overbrook String Band last year during the Mummers parade. Note the captain is the guy in the front — the tall one with the largest outfit.
Karen Karuza, a professor of fashion design at the Art Institute who facilitated the project, said the sketch contest for the captain’s suit that’s been going on since March went well, and now her advanced draping class is designing and fabricating suits for the dancers in the Greater Overbrook String Band as well. She said this is something different for students used to designing gowns or simple menswear — this is real costuming or, as they call it, “Mummer couture.”
“The students are so thrilled,” she said. “They’ve been so excited about this because of the Mummers tradition and how specific it is to Philadelphia and they’re just loving the opportunity to really stretch their creativity .”
But for Razzano and his team in Overbrook, getting students involved in their process is about more than the opportunity for education. For them, it’s about getting young people interested in their craft — one that has faced great struggles in recent years.
The Mummers Parade in all its sequin-y, satin glory has started down grim financial problems for the past several years. Some groups continue to be saved by private fundraisers because they can’t raise the upwards of $100,000 that’s often spent on putting together their New Years struts. As costs rise, membership is dipping, putting the Mummers in a precarious situation in the coming years.
One of the best ways forward for them? Engaging young people in their process.
“We’ve got to keep the youth in because they’re the future. I don’t know how many years I have left,” said Razzano, whose membership in the string band follows his parents’. “We need the youth to step up and take over. Our organization was created in 1931, so a lot of people have kept this organization going over the years. But it’s on thin ice. It’s difficult every year money-wise and membership-wise.”
For Bailey and some of her classmates, their approach worked. Despite being at only one Mummers parade in the past, this year Bailey said she’ll be standing front and center waiting for her real-life design to pass by. And her family from across the country is traveling here on New Years Day to see it, too.
“I was expecting the Mummers to be close-knit, just between the captains and the costumers and myself,” she said. “But no. They were so inclusive. Oh my gosh, I have a new love for the Mummers.”