The University of Iowa

Machine Dazzle and the art of costume design

Machine Dazzle may be a costume designer, but artist is a more apt description.


“Not all costume designers are artists,” says Dazzle. “An artist comes from a different place. A designer makes something that works. An artist is more poetic; they tell a story.”


Dazzle (né Matthew Flower) is the award-winning artist behind the elaborate costumes worn by Taylor Mac, one of the world’s leading theater artists, in the acclaimed performance, Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, an abridged version of which will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at Hancher Auditorium.


Dazzle says it takes a special person to wear art, and Taylor Mac, the playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer is one of them.


“He owns it. He becomes it,” Dazzle says.


Because Mac’s 24-Decade show is 24 hours long, few audiences have had a chance to appreciate the mad brilliance of all 24 costumes Dazzle created for the show. Iowans, however, will have that chance when Hancher’s Stanley Café is transformed into an exhibit space to display all the costumes in the days preceding the April 28 show.


“This building is crazy. It’s so beautiful and pristine; it’s exactly where you want your art to be,” Dazzle says of Hancher.


Dazzle’s costumes for the theatrical extravaganza are big—really big. They’re cheeky, challenging, and integrate cultural references and various objects—created and found. The exhibit will give the public an opportunity to marvel at the myriad details each costume comprises.


“This is an opportunity to try new things in this building,” Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson says. “We’re still exploring and discovering the potential of our new building. This little museum will certainly create a lasting memory.”


The costume exhibit won’t be the only way for the public to interact with Dazzle’s work—or the artist himself. The 24-Decade show inspired numerous collaborations between Hancher, the University of Iowa campus, Iowa City, and community organizations.

An artistic retelling of history

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music examines American history through a queer lens, a history that Dazzle says is rarely told. It consists of more than 240 songs—some original and many pre-existing popular songs from 1776 to present. Along with the music, the costumes play an important role in presenting a new conception of our country’s story, and a lot of research went into creating them.


“I know a lot more about American history now,” Dazzle says. “If you thought I paid attention in history classes growing up, you’re wrong. But I love it now.”


Dazzle says he looked at what was new to each decade and what people were doing at the time, then incorporated those themes into the costumes. For the mid-1800s, for example, Dazzle framed a hoop skirt with barbed wire, a new invention at the time. A headdress that appears during the 1980s features skulls with tinsel dripping from the eyes, representing tears for the AIDS epidemic.


Along with helping retell history, the costumes—particularly early in the show’s development—played another role.


“While we were workshopping the show, we didn’t know where we would be performing and there was no set or props. There were just the musicians and the costumes,” Dazzle says. “So, the costume had to be the scenery and the props.”


The 24-Decade show is not the first collaboration between Dazzle and Mac, whom Dazzle calls his No. 1 muse.


“As Taylor says, ‘Machine Dazzle doesn’t tell me how to do my job, and I don’t tell him how to do his,’” Dazzle says. “People have to be careful inviting me into their project. Is there room for a layer of art? Because I’m not going to make a regular old costume. It’s not in my bag. If that’s what you want, hire a regular costume designer.”


Performing in some of Dazzle’s costumes requires endurance because they can be heavy and hot to wear.


“I wouldn’t ask someone to wear something I wouldn’t wear myself,” Dazzle says. “I will suffer in a 50-pound costume in high heels—just grab the Advil. But I’m very spoiled. Taylor trusts me and lets me do whatever I want. The most he would say is, ‘It’s too long and tripping me.’”


Dazzle says he grew as an artist as result of being a part of the production.


“People have told us [the 24-Decade] show changed their lives,” Dazzle says. “It’s very moving to get that kind of response. How often does a show really change you? It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.”


Giving the community the Dazzle touch


In addition to taking audiences on a tour through American history, the 24-Decade show also is a celebration of community—of the communities it portrays and the community it creates through the shared experience of performance.


Dazzle got to know the Iowa City community during a visit in November 2017. Along with touring campus and meeting with local artists, he ate at a local Mexican restaurant—“Mexican is my favorite; it’s always a party”—and purchased an ugly Christmas sweater featuring a Santa zombie—“I always check out vintage stores when I go to a new town.”


When he returns later this month, he’ll participate in panel discussions, workshops, and the creation of storefront art.


“I feel this illustrates what Hancher can and should do: instigate exceptional, unusual, creative collaborations,” Swanson says. “These collaborations have just really exploded. We’re so excited about all of it.”


One partnership was years in the making. Swanson met several years ago with Simeon Talley, a co-founder of Flyover Fest—a two-day fashion, music, and arts festival in Iowa City—to discuss how the two groups might work together. The opportunity presented itself when the 24-Decade performance was announced. In fact, Flyover Fest moved its dates to take advantage of Dazzle’s visit.


“We believed in the partnership and we’re very appreciative for the opportunity to work with Hancher,” Talley says. “It was a great opportunity to raise the profile of the festival by collaborating with other community organizations and tap into a broader demographic of people who attend Hancher events and who are great patrons of the arts.”


As part of Flyover Fest, Dazzle will participate in a conversation about his work, his professional evolution, and what it means to be a queer artist making costumes for a queer show. Vero Rose Smith, associate curator of the UI Stanley Museum of Art, will moderate.


“One of the missions of Flyover Fest is to create a platform to amplify the stories of artists who come from underrepresented communities, whether that’s race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or ability,” Talley says. “I hope that people who meet Machine Dazzle or any of the participating Flyover Fest artists leave with a broader and deeper appreciation of the diversity of art that’s being created and that it helps to elevate critical conversations around inclusivity.”


Dazzle’s influence also will be evident in downtown Iowa City storefronts. Public Space One (PS1), a nonprofit arts organization, and the Iowa City Downtown District paired 12 visual and performance artists and two art collectives with 11 local businesses to create installations in their storefronts.


While Dazzle won’t have a direct hand in creating any of the installations, he met with some of the participating artists in November at PS1 for a “Let’s Hot Glue Things” event.


“The idea was to get creative people in a room and play,” PS1 Director John Engelbrecht says. “We accumulate a lot of various debris and art materials, and since Machine often uses recycled or found materials, we thought we’d pull it all out and see what happened. It was a sort of kick-off for the storefront project.”


The theme for the storefront installations came from the 24-Decade show and from a question Dazzle asked while he was in Iowa City: What is your story? Artists were encouraged to think about the history of Iowa City, particularly underrepresented histories. A few of the histories that will be told include LGBT nightlife, the Iowa breaking scene, Iowa Mountaineers, and the artists who have called Iowa City home.


The first storefront installation began April 1 in Sculpt on the pedestrian mall. The project will culminate with the Dazzle Crawl from 5 to 7 p.m. April 27, during which people can join Dazzle for a parade-like tour of the installations. Costumes are encouraged and a few of the storefronts will incorporate performances, including breakdancing and a burlesque show by the Heartland Bombshells.


Engelbrecht says the event is important for local artists because it gives them an opportunity to show their work in highly visible spaces.


Dazzle also will speak to UI theater classes and lead a May basket workshop at United Action for Youth. Afterward, the baskets will be distributed to children at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.


Dazzle says one of the main ingredients to creating community is a desire to come together for a greater good—something he says he saw while in Iowa City.


“When something goes on here, a lot of people get involved. This city is just small enough that people will come together for events,” Dazzle says. “It’s not always like that in other cities.”

Media Date: 
Monday, April 16, 2018