Les bons temps for a Baltimore native

How Jenny Campbell became a New Orleans costumer

February 19, 2014|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Featured in Scene

What is nearly as remarkable as Jenny Campbell's costumes — the glittering swirls of ribbon and whirling snow globe headdresses — is the path that led to her second career as a costume maker.

The Baltimore native taught herself to make costumes a few years ago, creating extravagant outfits for parades, bar crawls and parties at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Now Campbell spends her days buried in silk and sequins at the Southern Costume Co. in New Orleans, designing, selecting feathers and fabrics, and sewing elaborate, gravity-defying outfits.

"I'm never, ever tired of it," she said. "There's so much to do down here."

After work, Campbell, 49, turns her attention to creating her own costumes. She has founded her own krewe, or group of costumed Mardi Gras marchers, who will be participating in their first parade this week.

Until a few years ago, Campbell was surrounded by a different kind of artwork. For two decades, she was a photographer for the Walters Art Museum, recording and archiving works in the museum's collection — an experience that shaped her creative sensibilities.

"I saw pieces of art that will never see the light of day," she said. "That will always be an ongoing inspiration for me."

Campbell drew additional inspiration from the Visionary Art Museum, where she has also worked and volunteered. She began working as a photographer immediately after graduating from Chesapeake High School in Essex and taught herself to paint.

Campbell put a unique twist on the traditional Baltimore art of painting screens, embellishing them with portraits of burlesque dancers, John Waters' stars and local landmarks like the Bromo Seltzer Tower and the Domino Sugars sign.

Campbell has long been known for creating unusual clothing. She fashioned her wedding dress from covers of Brides magazine and made a dress for a high school reunion from photocopies of the yearbook.

She learned to sew by making outfits for her ex-husband's band in the 1980s.

"I started out just gluing because I didn't know how to sew," she said. She realized that thread was cheaper than glue, and, with some coaching from her mother, started teaching herself to sew.

She got serious about making costumes seven years ago, when she helped make outfits for a group of friends to wear to the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

That first year, Campbell made a shimmering tail from the tabs of cans. She and her friends wore flowing, hot-pink wigs.

Another year, the group dressed as Carmen Miranda-inspired mermaids, all bright-colored ruffles and fruit bowl-inspired headdresses.

Then there was the year Campbell was Meduse Antoinette, a cross between a jellyfish and a French monarch, and her friends were dressed in pink and black and silver, like can-can dancers with fish tails.

Soon the friends were so eager to have Campbell create their costumes that they were organizing pub crawls dressed as Mrs. Claus or German peasant girls or lady leprechauns.

"She has a costume for everything," said Dorothy Fuchs, a longtime friend from Baltimore. "She'd say, 'Let's go out for St. Patrick's Day,' and she'll have these amazing costumes."

Campbell would host costume-making parties before the mermaid parade or pub crawls, helping her friends craft their own costumes.

Fuchs, a Homeland resident who owns a public relations firm, said it is fascinating to watch Campbell create.

There's the 3-foot-tall wig she made out of yarn for her Marie Antoinette-themed costume, braiding and curling the strands to resemble 18th-century coiffure.

And then there's what is perhaps Campbell's most famous creation: a working snow globe headdress. She has worn a version of it as Mrs. Claus in the Mayor's Christmas Parade in Hampden and — tricked out with a bunny — for an Easter parade in New Orleans.

Most recently, Campbell has appeared in ads for "Top Chef" wearing the globe with a purple-and-gold fleur-de-lis inside.

The full effect of Campbell's costumes make her appear like a magical character from a children's book, sort of a cross between Glinda the Good Witch and Mother Ginger from "The Nutcracker." From the globe, tucked in a towering wig, to her elaborate corsets, flared skirts, tall boots and even her glittery eye shadow, she creates a cohesive look.

It was the snow globe head piece that helped Campbell land her job.

After years of visiting and showing her art in New Orleans, Campbell decided to move there about a year and a half ago. She wanted to live in a place where she could spend more time making — and wearing — costumes.

"I didn't want to go into theater, so for the type of costuming I want to do, this is pretty much the only place to do it," she said.

She walked into the Southern Costume Co. and handed the owner her business card, which has a photo of her wearing the globe. He hired her on the spot, she said.

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