After outfitting New Hampshire’s theater community for nearly 40 years, Mary Selvoski still prefers to work behind the scenes.
When a well-known local New Hampshire director approached seamstress Mary Selvoski about refitting a dozen costumes for an 1800s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the master seamstress didn’t hesitate. “He gave me two weeks,” she says and shrugs. “I’ve had tighter deadlines.”
It’s Monday morning when I catch up to Selvoski at her shop, Mary’s Closet, in an old warehouse called the Varick Building in the Millyard of Manchester, New Hampshire. Selvoski is cutting and restitching what to my eye just looks like an old blanket. But then she drapes her work over a nearby mannequin and the blanket is reborn as a flowing cloak. “It’s a spirit,” she says proudly. “There’s a few of those in The Tempest.”
If you have gone to a production of community theater anywhere in New Hampshire in the last four decades, odds are you’ve seen Selvoski’s work. Since 1980, the Granite State’s seamstress to the New Hampshire stars has been outfitting community theater groups, providing costumes from scratch or refitting outfits to meet the production’s needs. Taking a quick walk through her vast storage space, even the least theatrically savvy can identify the vast reach of her work. There’s a whole row of princess and queen outfits, from several copies of Beauty’s iconic yellow and blue gown to Glinda the Good Witch’s pink wings and high crown. An entire row is devoted to vests for men and another for Santa suits. There’s a shoe room and a hat room. And high up on the top shelf near the ceiling hangs an enormous Hello Kitty head. “My daughter made that,” Selvoski says. “She did a good job, don’t you think?”
In early 2016, Selvoski sold Mary’s Closet to Seacoast Repertory Theater, a well-known regional outfit based in Portsmouth. Now rechristened “Department M” by Seacoast Rep, Selvoski maintains her own corral of clients and serves as a designer and rental agent for the company. At this point, Selvoski estimates that she has 15,000 costumes in her warehouse.
Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and raised in Revere, Selvoski got her start in sewing out of stubbornness. She was a tumbler on the gymnastics team in her high school, but disliked her team’s costumes. “So I made new ones,” she says. “I’m very competitive, I look at other people’s work and think that maybe I can do better. That’s what’s kept me going.”
Ironically, it’s this same competitive nature that prevents the seamstress herself from attending the theater. She’s too critical. “I’ve never really been able to get into the show. I’m always looking at bad hemlines,” she says laughing. “Once I saw that an actress had a skirt made of the same material as an actor’s shirt and I thought, What were they thinking!”
Top photo courtesy Mary Selvoski