One peek inside Liz Prince’s design studio on the second floor of her Nyack home and you’ll know why she calls it her “tiny version of a costume shop.” Fabric swatches and design sketches adorn the walls, while a mannequin and industrial sewing machine share space with shelves piled high with colorful fabric remnants and boxes brimming with pompoms, tassels, lace, and fringe as well as the requisite buttons, bobbins, and thread.
Prince, 49, has been designing dance and theatrical costumes for some three decades. Her handiwork can be seen gracing the lithe bodies of dancers who perform for such prestigious troupes as Pilobolus and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
Prince says her interest in design dates back to grade school. “I remember making my own Halloween costumes as a kid,” she recalls. “My mother taught me how to sew and all about block printing, silk screening, and batik.” In addition, her New Hampshire high school had a large textile department, where she spent a great deal of time weaving.
While attending Bard College as a dance major, Prince had a work-study job designing costumes for the college company. She recalls that even back then, “it was difficult to come up with something the choreographer liked and the dancers would wear.”
Having a dance background has been a big help to Prince. “You understand the potency of having a costume that you feel comfortable in and how it can energize the performer,” she says. But, she adds, “You also have to listen to what the dancers’ concerns and issues are, and I think coming as a performer my ears are wide open to that.”
(From left): A sketch and an actual costume for the Pilobolus Dance Company’s performance of Contradance
Photograph (right) by Sara Davis
Her process often begins with watching the dancers during rehearsal. Prince takes careful note of what they wear; she knows from experience that the street clothes the dancers wear to the studio are what they feel good in. In fact, Prince says the polka-dot dress she designed for one of the principal dancers in a recent Pilobolus premiere was inspired by a dress that the dancer brought in as a rehearsal garment. “Better watch out what you wear to rehearsal is all I can say,” laughs Prince.
After graduating from college and moving to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the designer started making costumes for New York City performers. She also performed at a series of downtown nightclubs. “I would create these costumes and then make up acts to go along with them,” she recalls. Among her many creations was an outfit made of bottle caps and a dress made of dollar bills and pennies that she wore when performing her song called “Fit the Bill.”
It was at one of her downtown performances that Prince met her husband, Bill Ruyle, a musician who now teaches at Julliard. It was love at first sight, at least for Prince, who hopped on a bike and chased her future husband through the East Village in order to ask him out. While she didn’t catch up to him that night (he was in a car), the two have been together since 1988. Their daughter, Emilia, was born in 1992, and they married several years later.
When Emilia was an infant, Prince opened a baby store near her apartment. Among her best-selling items were homemade stretch velvet baby hats and booties. “I had all these pieces of fabric left over from different dance costumes,” says Prince. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do with one-square-foot of stretch velvet?’ The answer was I could make a baby hat that could sell for $20.” (Emilia, who is now studying apparel design at the University of Delaware, is considering reviving her mom’s hat designs and selling them locally as a way to make some extra money.)
While Prince successfully juggled both her jobs, at times she would have to close down the store and transform it into an instant costume shop. “Often choreographers are very last-minute because there’s no script and people really don’t know where the piece is going,” she says. “Once, I got a call right before one of Bill T. Jones’s pieces appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They said, ‘Liz, there are 10 dancers, and they all need to have a costume change.’ ”
Prince initially constructed the costumes herself, but she now focuses on creating the sketches and choosing fabrics; a variety of costume shops now execute her designs. Her job can be very time-consuming, taking anywhere from several weeks to a year-and-a-half to bring her designs to fruition. When she’s working on large projects for major choreographers, Prince says it is not unusual to work 14-hour days during the week before a production.
Prince designed the costumes for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s performance of Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray
Photograph by Paul Goode
In 1997 the family bought a circa-1896 Victorian home in Nyack. The residence had been a rooming house for 20 years and needed some major work. “I thought I knew everything” about home repair, says Prince, who spent childhood summers in Maine fixing up her father’s rambling farmhouse. “But once you get that piece of plasterboard in your hand, it’s a different story.”
Prince and Ruyle have been gradually fixing up their home over the past 13 years and have also spread roots in the Nyack community. But it took the couple some time to get adjusted to living outside Manhattan. “My life was really focused downtown, so moving to Nyack felt like a different country,” she admits. “Even having lived in Maine, I wasn’t used to sidewalks, backyards, and neighborhood kids.” She soon got into the groove. “We live close enough to Main Street, so if you want to have pizza or a late-night cocktail, you can still walk into town.”
She also takes advantage of the local thrift stores when she needs emergency assistance. Among her favorites are Grace’s Thrift Shop and Nyack Hospital’s “New to You” store, where she recently picked up some blue jeans that she sewed into a multipocketed pair of overalls for a costume used in a piece by Pilobolus called Contradance. “Also, there’s Sew What’s New, a fabric store that’s existed forever here on Main Street. It’s really saved my life many times,” says Prince.
The designer, who received a 1990 Bessie Award for outstanding costume design, has designed her share of outrageous costumes, from a polar bear outfit made of white silk organza and covered in silk tassels (worn in a play about global warming) to a red opera coat made of red plastic mesh with a giant fur collar and cuffs that measured some 10 feet in circumference (designed for Bill T. Jones’s A Quarreling Pair).
Prince is now passing on her craft to the next generation, teaching at both Manhattanville and Purchase colleges in Westchester County. It can be quite a challenge, Prince notes. “It’s very different than when you’re working on a play with 100 pages of dialogue. You’re flying by the seat of your pants when you design for dance. There’s no clue when you start where a piece is going to land. You have to be really patient and on your game, so you can sense what the piece might need and not freak out when there’s a major change… It’s a huge process.”