Dazzling, gigantic parade balloons are all set to float down Sixth Avenue for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade today. You’ll see four elves from the Netflix movie The Christmas Chronicles, Charlie Brown, and an astronaut/snowman designed specifically for Macy’s. But whatever you do, don’t overlook the balloon handlers, some 90 per balloon, and their smart attire. FIT adjunct faculty member Barbara Berman, the parade’s costume crew chief, along with her accomplished team of 135, dressed all 2,000 handlers, 900 clowns, 400 parade officials, 350 float escorts, 350 teens, 100 banner carriers, and 70 stilt walkers and special characters in the procession. Berman’s team put outfits on more than 4,000 total parade participants, a Herculean feat of organization and dedication that Berman has tackled for the last 16 years. Starting in August, she recruited the team herself, drawing heavily on students who took her class in PR and special events at FIT’s Center for Continuing and Professional Studies, where Berman is the facilitator for the certificate program in Fashion Events Planning.
Berman’s workday began at 4:45 this morning at the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue. (Dressers and marchers reported there; costumed participants were then bused up to the parade’s starting point in Central Park.) The dresser team, wearing the required all-black uniform, traveled from all across the New York metropolitan area, and Berman assigned everyone to a station so the procedure could run like clockwork. Every marcher received a costume—for balloon handlers, that meant a jumpsuit, tabard, and gloves, the entire outfit color-coordinated with their balloon. (Spongebob’s handlers wear—you guessed it—bright yellow.) They also got hand warmers, rain ponchos, and confetti, which Berman frowns upon because it gets into the costumes. Macy’s management pores exhaustively over every parade detail; a few years ago, someone noticed that marchers were all wearing different footwear, so now paraders wear spats, too.
Fit poses the greatest challenge, Berman says: The marchers, Macy’s employees who come from all over the East Coast for the event, measure themselves for costume size, and sometimes they’re a bit heavier than they realized. There’s no quick fix for a costume that’s too tight, so Berman, who has a long history in wardrobe and fashion show production, makes do: “You’re a clown!,” she’ll say. “Your costume is too small—that’s hysterical!” Marchers have to walk several miles, and if a hem is too long, it can tear. “We do immediate alterations if needed,” Berman says, “so I encourage everyone on the team to learn to sew a little bit.” Her biggest fear is precipitation: “A lot of the outfits are made of foam, and if they get wet they’re like giant sponges. We recruit an emergency rain team that dries out the costumes with giant fans the day after the parade. Every year we hope we don’t have to use them.”
Berman’s efforts have saved Macy’s money and headaches, and in 2008 the company awarded her a Rollie—a special award for helping out with the parade. That year, Betty White also received a Rollie for her frequent appearances in the procession over the years. Berman’s team gets a much-envied addition to their resume. When the parade is over, marchers will return to the New Yorker, where Berman’s team will take back the costumes, which will be cleaned and stored, and reunite paraders with their carefully arranged and secured personal belongings. By 1 PM, Berman’s done. As for the parade itself? Berman, occupied with her work, has never seen it live. “I hear it’s really good,” she says with a laugh.