In 1994, a young woman walked into a Marietta, Georgia fabric shop looking for someone to make a last-minute costume for her boyfriend. Two years later, that young woman would become Sable, WWE Diva, wrestling fashion icon, and all-around babe. Her boyfriend (now ex-husband) was Johnny B. Badd aka Marc Mero, and he needed something to wear for the Pay-Per-View event he was wrestling in that week in North Carolina.
The woman in the Marietta fabric shop was Sandra Gray. Although it was the middle of a busy prom season and she had never sewed on spandex before, this woman was begging her, so Gray told Sable to come by her house later and she'd get it done. That chance encounter led Gray to a new career as a seamstress and designer for the WWE, a job she still holds today, over 20 years later.
When she first began, Gray wasn't familiar with pro wrestling, but her two young sons were.
"They knew all about who [Johnny B. Badd] was," she remembers. "They were super excited. So I took on this job, never having sewn on spandex before, and I made him a pair of trunks. I didn't know the technique, and I didn't have anyone to ask. I just did the best I could, and I was going to get the chance to see my work on TV. My whole family was excited."
Her family watched the match and kept screaming "Put him down!" at the television as Johnny B. Badd was repeatedly yanked up and put on the turnbuckle. Much to her relief, his trunks stayed up and, after the show, Marc Mero called and thanked her for the outfit.
"That just meant so much to me that he took the time to [call]," she said. "He did and that's how I got my start in professional wrestling. I must have done a good job because he started telling people where he got his trunks from, and people started to call me. I basically just taught myself."
Gray has been a self-taught seamstress ever since her mom won a sewing machine in a women's club bingo raffle on an army base. She and her siblings all messed around with the machine that summer, but it stuck with her. By the time school had started that year, she was already making herself clothes.
Her ability to quickly pick up a technique and create something beautiful, functional, and, nowadays with a lot of rhinestones, has served her well. Many people, especially those unfamiliar with the world of pro wrestling, underestimate what a crazy thing it is that this huge production, Monday Night Raw, is put on each week around the country with no off-season.
"It's like a family," Gray explains. "I look at us like gypsies. We all come together and then we roll into this city and put this huge show together. Then it's over and we move on to the next city. But we love what we do, and it takes so many people to make this thing work. It's a beautiful product."
A young director named Max Landis describes the beauty of WWE in his short film Wrestling Isn't Wrestling. He calls Monday Night Raw "the best soap opera on television" and articulates the feelings of so many wrestling fans when they try to describe their fandom: it can be cheesy, but when it's good, it's great. Gray is a core part of creating the costumes that are capable of making grown people wish they could play pretend again.
Twenty years into the gig, she still thrives on the last-minute stresses and spontaneous collaborations that happen when creating an entire wardrobe for a cast of characters each week. She makes many of the Divas' outfits and works with a team of two other seamstresses. At this point in her career, the higher-ups don't need to tell her much more than "We need this costume for Monday night."
The wrestlers might give her a color or an idea of the sort of look they'd like, and she runs with it from there, translating it into an embellished version of what they describe. She pays a lot of attention to the personalities of the wrestlers, as a seamstress making individual gear for six different women. Whether it's the sexy-athletic look of Nikki Bella or neon disco queen outfits for Alicia Fox and Cameron, a look has to be created that both defines a character and supports them as they dive off the top rope.
"The costumes really take a beating, so there's just a certain technique for stitching on spandex," she explains. "It has to be tight-fitting to the body; they have to feel it. If I see them in the ring and they pull on their outfit or tug at it, then I haven't done my job because something's not fitting right."
On March 29, WrestleMania, pro wrestling's Super Bowl, will take place at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Comparing it to Christmas, Gray says that no matter how prepared they are, there will always be the last minute things that come up on the road. Right now, she's staying up late nights to finish the costumes for one of the weirder wrestling teams: real-life brothers Stardust and Goldust.
WrestleMania craziness is how Gray wound up on E!'s Total Divas. On her first episode, Gray dealt with the stress of having the wrong feathers delivered, something that resembled chicken feathers more than Vegas showgirl feathers. The panic resulted in some hilarious scenes of Gray snapping at the girls to "get out of her face for a few minutes" as she hustled to get things ready.
The team members get on each other's nerves like any group of people who travel together each week, but Gray describes working with them the way parents talk about their children. Gray explains that she was practically unaware of being filmed for Total Divas because she was working extra hard to make sure the women looked beautiful for their families as they made their WrestleMania debut. The company and the wrestlers support her in return.
When she's not designing wrestling outfits, Gray works with her other love, vintage clothing, in her Tampa Bay home. She has a vintage shop on Etsy, SGO Vintage, and recently put on a fashion show that benefitted a nearby domestic violence shelter. WWE talent like Cesaro and Roman Reigns modeled for her. "They wear spandex all the time, so they love to dress up," she says. "They get the chance to put on the tuxedo or gown, and they're all over that. The guys like it as much as the ladies do. They're so awesome. They come out there and they're like 'What do you need me to do? Where do you need me to stand?'"
Gray's love for the wrestlers has kept her going through years on the road, whether creating black and gold latex suits for Goldust or Dolph Ziggler's spring breaker shorts with "Show Off" stitched on the rear. "I get to do what I love to do and travel with this amazing company," she says. "The cool thing is when I create something from this wad of fabric, there are people all over the world who really enjoy seeing it. It's a good feeling."