It's rather unusual these days for anyone to work for the same company for more than two decades, but costume designer Pamela Allen-Cummings has been with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) for 21 years. Originally from Toledo, OH, Allen-Cummings knew she wanted to major in fashion design, and thought she would ultimately be a shoe designer. She graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and her first job out of college was at Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she has been ever since.
"I really wasn't thinking about costuming, but a friend of mine who went to school with me was leaving DTH and asked if I wanted the position, and I said I'd give it a try," Allen-Cummings explains. "I came in as the wardrobe assistant for the company, and every three years, basically, I changed to a different level in the organization. I went from assistant to supervisor to shop manager to costume supervisor, and now I'm presently the designer. What kept it interesting is I've changed, I never kept the same type of position throughout. I was traveling with the company, but that really wasn't my cup of tea. I decided construction is what I really wanted to do, and they asked me to stay to be shop manager."
Allen-Cummings has designed pieces for the company since 1995, but this is the first time they have had four new dances on opening night, so this was a challenge. Also, in June DTH relocated its costume shop into a space one-fifth the size it was previously, "so I had to make it work, fix it up to look somewhat like a shop, and do four new pieces in a matter of two-and-a-half months.
"This space is the first room I worked in when I came to the organization," she continues, "so I sort of did a turnaround, like I'm back home now. I started in this very same room with Zelda Wynn, who was the costumer at the time that I started. So I'm back in my little space, but the company has grown since, and this space is really too small, but we made it work for the season."
DTH's fall season was dedicated to Wynn, who had worked in the wardrobe department for many years and passed away last year. She was in her 90s, and was considered DTH's "Mom." Allen-Cummings basically apprenticed under her when she came to work at DTH.
"She was a very hard woman to work for," the designer says, "but it was good for me. She was here as wardrobe person, and she remained here as the fashion coordinator for the school. She's the one I got my basic start from in costuming. Then later on I was also inspired by Carl Michel; those were the two people who inspired me and showed me the basics and later on the tricks of the trade of making things work and getting things done."
With her traveling and wardrobe maintenance background, Allen-Cummings is concerned with how a costume will hold up under performance conditions. "When I'm designing, I keep in mind how the wardrobe staff will maintain a costume. I'm definitely more aware than I guess the average costume shop would be, because once it leaves a shop they never see it again, but when it leaves my shop, it comes back to me. I enjoy making it work, I take things very personally, how things are constructed, how they can be maintained. I take pride in that, so I work diligently to make it happen."
Several factors made Allen-Cummings' job even more challenging this past season. In addition to moving the DTH costume shop, she had to sneak fabric to her dyer who was busy with New York Fashion Week, which itself was interrupted by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
Photos: Joseph Rodman