There are not a lot of ambiguous feelings when it comes to sequins. Either they never cross your mind, or you discuss them fervently. The Boston Babydolls are in the latter camp. On a recent Sunday night before their monthly gig at Flat Top Johnny's, five members of the classic burlesque troupe and their frontman/manager/producer, the fedora-topped Scratch, sat around a high table in the Kendall Square pool hall pulling, tugging, and meticulously aligning sequins - and ribbons and snaps and hand-dyed silk strips.
There was no time to waste. The Great Boston Burlesque Exposition was fast approaching. And the Babydolls, several of whom helped organize this weekend's bevy of workshops, performances, and exhibits, all of whom are performing in it, had costumes to complete.
"I found this fabulous sequin gown, but it looks like something they'd wear on 'Dynasty' circa 1984," said Honey Do, adjusting the feather piece pinned in her hair, a gift from her aunt. "It has shoulder pads. It's all wrong. It's not a Babydoll dress. Yet." She burrowed into the stitching of the emerald green reflective dress with a seam-ripper. The sleeves had to go, but none of the sequins could be sacrificed.
Betty Blaize (all the Dolls go by their stage names), whose hairspray-fortified loops of hair formed a kind of tiara, whipped out scissors, thread, and slivers of red, yellow, and orange silk she'd dyed. They were destined to be the shimmy-able parts on a shimmy-belt, designed to look like leaping flames when the wearer's hips swing just right. She and Dominique, a circus-arts specialist who had just come from teaching a kids' hula-hoop class, got busy pinning costumes for a number they're resurrecting this weekend: four demon-esses invading the dreams of a good girl in a prim white nightgown and tempting her to unleash her inner bad girl, performed to the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell."
"We have to get these finished since costumes are a vital part of the rehearsal process," said Miss Mina - half as explanation, half as pep talk - as she stitched snaps onto her white cotton nightgown. "You can hit that timing perfectly when you don't have elastics and hooks to deal with."
She, of course, was the good girl. In a snug azure sweater and neatly tailored gray skirt, with short, curled-under strawberry bangs, Miss Mina bore an uncanny resemblance to a secretary in a Mickey Spillane novel. Honey Do was sporting a royal purple fringe dress that would have made Zelda Fitzgerald swoon. And these were not their costumes. They all appear to subscribe to the Babydoll fashion code, one that encompasses the styles in vogue between 1920 and the mid-1950s - onstage and off.
"When things start getting weird and '60s-ish, it's over," Dominique says
"Free love is not burlesque," affirms Betty.
Crafty sessions like these are part of the Babydolls' M.O., as are weeknight and weekend rehearsals (all hold 9-to-5 jobs). They make their own costumes, and Betty keeps every piece of every costume for every number scrupulously catalogued on spreadsheets on her PDA. Scratch manages databases of what numbers have been done and where to avoid repetition.
Any sit-down gathering is likely to become an open forum for shop talk. On this night, they discussed pros and cons of different kinds of adhesives (for pasties), opined on plans for their next hair color, paid tribute to the never-fail excellence of glitter ("What would the world be without body glitter?" asked Honey Do. "A very sorry place," piped in newest member April Jane), and addressed the matter of tassels.
"Sometimes people hear conversations and think, 'They must be upholsterers,' " says Scratch, matter-of-factly.
Actually, the Babydolls have their own lingua franca, most of which is jargon stemming from words used to describe dance moves. There are terms like "to pull a Betty," Babydolls patois for a wardrobe malfunction. "Betty's the resident exhibitionist," says Honey Do. But even universally understood words have different meanings in the context of burlesque.
"Usually when we say 'naked,' we mean in our bottom layer, which means pasties and panties and stockings," said Miss Mina. That's caused confusion and panic among more than a few venue managers.
"Yay! Finally!" blurted Honey Do. It was about 90 minutes after she had started surgery on the seam. She held up a severed sequined sleeve.
Scratch looked at his watch. It was time to start getting ready for the show. People had begun to arrive and occupy the pool tables. The sleeve wouldn't be the last article of clothing to come off that night.
The Great Boston Burlesque Exposition runs today through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency, 575 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. 617-869-2000. burlesque-expo.com