Machine Dazzle’s costumes are pure magic in Philadelphia’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music

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Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Machine Dazzle – You really need to know who he is

Machine Dazzle is the costume designer of Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music show that is the piece de resistance of this year’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, May 31 through June 10, 2018. Machine Dazzle’s designs are nothing short of, shall I say, dazzling! They are campy, energetic, creative and tell a story on their own, but when you put Taylor Mac in them, who can be described using those same adjectives, you get pure magic!

I spoke with Machine to discuss the upcoming show and what events have made him the designer he has become. He’s pretty special, and you need to know who he is!

Alyx Reinhardt:  I’d really love to know where your name, Machine Dazzle, originated.

Machine Dazzle is a talented costume designer
Machine Dazzle is a talented costume designer

Machine Dazzle: It’s a funny story. I moved to New York in 1994. I was doing a lot of clubbing and had lots of energy. And I love dancing. So, they called me the “dancing machine” and then over time it just became the Machine. It became like a first name. Then I started costuming the Dazzle Dancers. At the time I wasn’t really one of them. But I would show up to the show with the outfits and I would be in a drag version of whatever they were wearing. Then eventually I became one of the dancers because hey, you know, I like to dance!

I was always there and sometimes people wouldn’t show up and everyone had a “Dazzle” name, like the lead choreographer, Cherry Dazzle, and there was a Robbie Dazzle, a “Pretty Boy” Dazzle, a “Chunky Cupcake” Dazzle, all these different Dazzle names, so I was already Machine and became Machine Dazzle!

Are you from New York originally?

MD: No, I moved to New York in 1994. I was born in 1972. I’m 45. I was born just outside of Philadelphia, actually. I was less than a year old when we moved. I grew up mostly in Texas, then Idaho, and later Colorado.

Where did the design bug start?

When did you first fall in love with design? Were you always just into making things when you were young?

Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf

MD: I’ve always been an artist, and always kind of the art star in art class. I was the creative one and went beyond the assignment. I always wanted things to be more, so it’s been my strength my whole life. That’s basically what I wanted to do. I’m actually kind of introverted as a person. But when I go out, all of that kind of comes out at night, like on the stage, but I’m kind of quiet by day. I’m not especially loud and opinionated. I’m actually kind of low-key during the day.

You let your creations speak for you.

MD: I guess I do.

Who was your first inspiration?

MD: My first inspiration. Oh God, I don’t know. I came from a very working-class family and arts were not in my family. There was nothing. We didn’t go out and we didn’t go to concerts. We didn’t go to galleries or museums. We just didn’t do those things. We were working class, and it was more about surviving. Television was my outlet and then the shopping mall; I think a lot of Americans educate themselves by consuming. It’s culture. What’s next? What’s new? Let’s go buy something. I mean, that’s not just America, I think that’s global, really. But I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was entertaining myself and I had it all going on in my head. I guess my first early influences were probably characters that I saw in movies or something on television. I always particularly admired other people, like at school, usually in an older class, I liked how they dressed or how they were able to carry on and how people had friends and you know, I kind of wanted to be all of these things that I wasn’t.

I didn’t start being experimental until I really started my life, when I moved to New York after college. I needed to break free from everything that I knew, and not have anyone controlling what I was doing or have any say about what I was doing

Did you study design in college?

Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf

MD: I was focused on a fine-art degree, so I did a lot of different things. I really love photography. I love sculpture, I love photography, I love drawing. I just took everything in! I took biology, I took sociology, I love sociology classes. I’m very interested in political art that says something. I think that between history and sociology is political art. I do it now with Taylor Mac but, you know, sometimes I feel like I do it without researching things as much as I’d like to.

Where does the inspiration come from? 

So the show that you’re doing with Taylor Mac, how do you come up with these designs? Do you look at a particular decade and piece stuff together, or is it focused on one thing?

MD: We were workshopping each decade over a period of, like, six years before we actually performed and put all 24 of them together. So, the costumes were constantly changing. The concepts were changing. A lot of the music had changed. The actual way that Taylor was telling the story was changing. It’s kind of a combination of things. But the costumes are a combination of the fashion of the time, in terms of silhouette, but I feel like that’s what like regular costume designers do. I’m not a regular costume designer. I’m an artist first. So as a costume artist I prefer to make things in a very unconventional way. I put little stories in there. I have a lot of ideas rather than, you know, fashion. I don’t use the word “clothing” or “fashion,” in the same sentence with myself. I’ll consider what they were wearing, what was going on, what was new, what was invented at the time. I look at them and I don’t consider any of them finished. I still want to make changes to most of them. I like to add things, change things.

I’m a different person today than I was yesterday. I’m constantly adding and changing the costumes. And I’m reconsidering them and wanting them to be better.  For Philadelphia I did want some Liberty Bell in there! I mean, I wanted Taylor to crash out of a Liberty Bell. It starts with a crack, and it just cracks all the way open and that’s how we start the show. But we can’t, it’s just not practical. And the opening of the show is better as it is. Maybe when Taylor introduces me I might make a Liberty Bell outfit for myself when I come out. But I haven’t started making it yet. I would love to do it. I think it’d be fun!

[I can practically hear the gears turning in his brain.]

Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf

MD: I want it to look like the Liberty Bell. But do I want this big three-dimensional, physical thing? I’m still figuring out how I should really do it. You know, there’s a hoop skirt way of doing it or should I just have like a flat piece of cardboard that they come out in? It’s really that goofy works, you know? I think of a lot of funny things, people love to laugh and it’s entertaining. Exquisitely designed costumes and fine tailoring, it’s very beautiful, but it’s not necessarily funny. Funny is better. Funny costumes are better than beautiful costumes. Oh, it’s beautiful, and then you stop looking at it. At least that’s my experience.

 Taylor Mac’s show is very interesting, and it is very long

Can you elaborate how the show will work, because it’s going to be in two different 12-hour sets.

MD: It’s a 24-hour show and we start in 1776, we go to the present day; that is 24 decades. So we started in 1776, the first hour and every hour is a different decade in American popular music and we concentrate on certain areas of the American population and so on. That means we’re going from 1776 to, I think, 1896 for the first show, 12 decades. Then 1896 to the present day is the second half of the show so there are two 12-hour shows. They really are 12 hours and there’s no intermission. It keeps going, the audience, you just take care of yourself. You need to go to the bathroom, you go, you need something to eat, you go get something to eat.

If you could, boil down a couple of your absolute favorite decades,

MD: They’re all good for different reasons. I love the third decade it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s um, Taylor plays Crazy Jane and it’s songs from the pub during the Temperance Movement. Taylor is playing Crazy Jane and she’s singing the songs that were popular in the pubs, but then we have a Temperance choir come in and they sing Temperance songs and they kind of go back and forth and they battle it out! It’s a really great decade.

Another decade that I really liked is the Walt Whitman versus Stephen Foster decade. We have a boxing ring on stage and we’ll choose someone from the audience to come up and play Stephen Foster. It’s basically a battle of who’s the true father of American songs. Stephen Foster is considered the father of American song, but you know, of course Taylor is championing Walt Whitman, who’s way more radical and interesting and a queer person.

And at the end, 1996 to 2006, it’s radical lesbian songs. It’s a really fun decade; listen to the music in it. They’re all good for different reasons and there are really beautiful moments throughout but those are just some highlights for me in terms of decades, but I don’t experience that the way you will as an audience member because I’m part of the show.

What else does Machine Dazzle have planned?

Do you design for anyone else?

Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf
Taylor Mac photo by Teddy Wolf

MD: I design private commissions.  I mean, I’m an artist, I just designed a show in Las Vegas. My designs are for whoever wants to wear something of mine. I’ve designed for a lot of different people in the past, other dancers, other drag queens. I’ve done a lot over the years

Do you have plans to ever go mainstream?

MD: I don’t have plans to. I mean if it happens, it happens. But I definitely don’t want to design products that are for sale. I don’t want to do that. I have zero interest in it. Maybe I’ll die poor, or whatever. But it doesn’t interest me as an artist, and I design things for specific moments.

What trend do you wish would make a comeback?

MD: A fashion trend? You know, I don’t really think about fashion and I just wear whatever I want.

What do you wish would disappear?

MD:  I really hate baseball caps. I just don’t think they look flattering on anybody. Especially backward! I wish people would stop it. I was sitting at dinner with my partner last night inside of this lovely restaurant and there was a younger couple in there and the guy was wearing, I don’t know, like a tee shirt and kind of a jacket with a stupid base ball cap on.  Don’t you take your hat off at the table? Especially that kind of a hat considering the restaurant we were in, which was very elegant. People are nicely dressed and this guy, he just sitting there with a baseball cap on and he looks out of place and it just, it made him look so unintelligent. I just can’t stand them. They don’t look good on anyone.

If you could meet anyone in history, past or present, whom would it be and what would you say? It doesn’t have to be one person, either.

MD: I don’t know. But I would love to meet Hillary Clinton and I don’t know what I would say except keep on fighting, keep winning, keep winning the fight. I still think she’s a winner.

I can’t think of the past. For me, I have to think of the future. You can’t change the past. I wish I could meet my grandparents and talk with them and see who they really were. I never knew my ancestors. They died when I was very young. And a couple of them died before I was born, but that would be interesting. Meeting the foundations of my parents to see how that whole thing happened. That interests me more than meeting someone famous.

Taylor Mac’s 24 Decades of Music runs June 2 and June 9.  Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201718/pifa/taylor-mac/

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