Working In The Theatre: Costumes

My training is in set design. I went to the Yale Drama School in Set Design to study with Ming Cho Lee. I’ve actually only take one course in costume design. The rest has been monkey see monkey do. Now, this is the fun part. I’m not exactly sure when the switch happened from scenery to costumes But I think it happened as simply as I couldn’t get any jobs doing scenery. when I moved to New York and everyone
needed some clothes. So I’ll call William he has something in
a bag somewhere. So that’s how it began. Nine was my first big musical, second
musical on Broadway. It was like right out of the gate and I
won this Tony Award. Thinking back on it, I don’t know how
that happened. But it did change my life. And made me feel like, oh I guess, I guess I’m doing this. I’m always afraid of not being able to come up with an idea. And to counteract that fear of not being able to think of something. It’s why I’ve developed this amazing,
sort of blitz green gathering of images. Because if you live in a cocoon, like
this seller basement of mine, osmosis it just sort of bombards you with
the research, with the feeling, with the energy. I think that helps ward off
that fear of designers block and so far so good the designers block is kept at
bay at the moment. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have nightmares about it. Absolutely. You know when I first started, I took no
prisoners. In fact my agent used to get these little packages. It had dimes and a Valium in it. And it was if you’re having a panic attack, call me and take a Valium. This lasted through the years, up through
25 cents. So it became quarters and two Valium. I never took the Valium because I can’t even take aspirin and and not be affected. But, the mere confidence of having the
little packages with two quarters and two Valiums in it just was comforting to me. But it also acknowledged I was out of control. I didn’t have an overview. I thought
everything was life or death. And I’m going to tell you right now that was the best way to begin. Kids starting out it has to be life or death. I never say no to a project. I would say
yes and then I figure out how to make it happen. Because one door opens another and theaters all about relationships. And I learned that the hard way because when I came into this business, I had a chip on my shoulder the size of
Manhattan. Growing up in New York City in the
70s, you can see it as the best of times and
the worst of time. And the city was bankrupt. And I lived in
the South Bronx which is a lower income neighborhood. But within the craziness of the time, I was able to find beauty. I always was interested in what color
people painted their apartments because in the Bronx, a lot of the buildings were
burnt down or abandoned, you can look into the windows and you can see the
different colors. New York in the 70s that was the birth of hip-hop and it
changed the music we heard, the fashions, and you can still see it in my aesthetic. Graffiti, it’s pretty much in everything I do,
whether it’s text. I love text. I am prone to use bright vibrant colors. So my upbringing is always apart of it. I had a friend in Los Angeles who
emailed me to said Project Runway is looking for designers and I think you
should audition. But they weren’t sure that I had the right fit for the show because I was a costume designer. Back when I was doing the show, Costume Designers were thought of as a gimmick. They really didn’t see us as Fashion Designers. So I had to go back again and really prove to them that I was a
Fashion Designer. I learned that I have very little
patience for when things don’t go my way. And I think TV just amplified that. But also I learned that I can put out good work under extreme stressful situations
and if I follow my instinct, I could be successful. A great designer I knew was Charles James. I moved to the Chelsea Hotel. He lived on the sixth floor. I lived on the
fourth floor. I would send him notes saying, I’d love
to meet you, this, and of course he totally ignored all of them because he would get that all the time. And then, I was making a doll and I was having trouble with the bodice. And something just occurred to me to write a note. Dear Mr. James. I’m having problems with this dress. Ten minutes later he came to my
apartment and there was the doll. And he saw the doll and he advised me. He
thought I was going the right way. He said he was, just too bad it was too
small. He would love to see it life-sized. that’s what he said. I said well
we’re starting with the doll. [laughs] Hello. How are you? Look where I am. You’re here. Roof top, yeah. What I loved about it was the light. When I create I need light. So you can tell what colors things are. Exactly. And when I procrastinate, I can look at the stuff. What do you mean? I feel everything. Exactly. I was in Fashion School. I was I think 15/16 maybe and Nine… You had just done Nine. And that famous lace jumpsuit that Anita Morris wore. And I remember opening the newspaper and seeing that. I was like whoa what is that? Now I know why I was so attracted to it. It just changed my, at least my idea of what costume was because that was more of fashion. They hadn’t done anything like that
in theater before and they got so much press. She was on David Letterman. And I
stayed up late one night just to watch her. And I think it was by using that little
ruffle at the ankle and at the cuff. That’s what made it not just a leotard. It gave it the sensitive side. Do you know why I added it? Why did you add it? No I don’t know. I’m fascinated by that story. Because the ankles were small yeah and I wanted the curve to stay and not go pointy. So I gave it out a little flamenco energy to give it a little Va va va Voom! Then it goes out, you know. And she decided to go for it. It changed her career. It did. It changed all our careers. Oh, my goodness. Well I didn’t realize that this interested you. That’s I think the power of theater. It transcends generations, color lines, economic boundaries and your
people are in a dark sharing of story What’s in this room? Oh this room. Oh you have to come see this. This is like where the actual work gets done. I have my brother… You can tell how tall you are. I’m telling you this…. Some of my
favorite times with my actor is in the fitting room. That’s when I get into their heads. And then how does it starts a fitting, say you start with a what? a mirror A mirror and underwear. Yeah mirror and underwear.
Let’s get everything where it needs to be. Where you feel comfortable and then I
don’t ask them do you like something, I ask my first question to an actor is tell
me about the character. Who is she? Where did you go to school? What kind of
music do you listen to? Are you a high heel girl? Which they all
say yeah no matter what the role is. What do you do when men want to wear…
What waist, waistline on man period vs. contemporary. Well, what did you do with Porgy and Bess with waistline? Well here’s the thing and for me
sometimes the little tricky because I come in with these modern waist, my pants
are lower and my hips and then I’m trying to teach them or get them to wear their
pants at their natural waist. The navel. That’s totally completely different for the youth for young people today. But I just
I just make them do it, and, and then when they don’t want to do it, I just put a pair of
suspenders on. to make sure… and then I stitch them. That’s the trick. Cause they’ll drop them down. I realize that men are fussier than women. Because we don’t have a lot of different
things to wear. We wear a pair of pants everyday, a shirt or tee shirt or a jacket. That’s what we wear everyday. So that that suit has to say everything. Because they don’t have five different changes. Also men throughout history have really been peacock themselves too. One longs for the 17th century and Louis the 14th because then you can then its peacock alley. It is a natural thing for men to have
the plumage, all the birds, nature. The men always have, the males have the bright colors. Do you see it coming back now with
so much freedom. With pop culture and the performers. Do you see where
men are being more experimental with color or are they just like performers and not really people. I wish that that were so. In fact, the skinny suits, and the boys, and
the young gay boys, and the young straight metrosexual boys, and I would love all
that. I mean it’s wishing, right But, wishin don’t make it so. I haven’t done a job where I can’t look
back and look at something you’ve done. I remember Annie Get Your Gun was so
influential because I was working at Matera’s at the time and you did all
that wonderful leather, all those chaps. But they weren’t like normal chaps. These
were like the most beautiful chaps. Sexy Chaps. But just the craftsmanship. Willa, oh you know is my hero oh and sort of got me started in the business. I saw her work on PBS in the early seventies, late sixties early seventies. And I just thought someone can do that. That’s a job. We could make a living. You
can do that. I didn’t know that that level of art could be done with and she
had done the sets and the costumes for this ballet. And it was in Black and White on
television. What it is is about that one about black,
how do you do black and white and still keep it dynamic and interesting for the
audience without getting repetitive. You gave me an amazing an
amazing trick about the skin tones. How you bring the skin tone. It’s not just Black and White. You have to bring that because
it has to, somehow you have to soften it in. Permission and of course, you know who did that so beautifully is Willa. She always painted skin tones into the
leotards. Yes and so you didn’t know where the
color was coming. She wanted them to be basically naked yeah well who doesn’t? but uh and so she discovered that
was the key with Sally Ann Parsons. So we’re gonna go see Willa. Oh cool.
Hopefully she’ll have… I don’t know whether she has sketches. You know, she’s also right at the edge of tomorrow. Cutting edge. You’re my hero. You’re my hero. Thank you for today. I’ve been wearing this outfit for decades. White shirt, stripe tie, navy blazer, khaki pants, black shoes. Now there have been variations for some reason, deeply psychological
things, I have forgotten, but a wee period during the seventies I were blue
jeans. Whoo-hoo what was I thinking. The worst thing a costume designer can wear are interesting clothes. Nothing destroys confidence like
cleverly inventive clothes worn by your costume or wardrobe person because
it means you are spending time thinking about yourself. You need to save all of your energy and
design essence for the work. I have Kander and Ebbs Chicago running now in its18-year. Sometimes the fabrics are no longer available so I have to choose
other fabrics and actually I love this. I mean what a wonderful problem to have.
Oh the costumes are falling apart You hope the shows run forever and, but when they don’t, I try very hard to get the producers to give them to me. Gosh I’m going to fabric stores and I
find fabrics that I should have used in a play that ended two years ago and I buy it. I buy the fabric. I have bins of fabric of
shoulda woulda coulda bins. That sit up there. And sometimes I reuse
them. But usually I just collect them. Because for m e it’s completing a process
and I owe it to the memory of that production. It’s sort of crazy but I could be on a guest episode of hoarders. This is my concept board for Cinderella.
I always at the end of one show I have one board that is just for that show and
has the essence of that show. And I’d leave it on it especially if it’s still running. I was trying to figure out I wanted,
during the ball scene, the ballroom scene you know, it’s very aspirational who
doesn’t want to marry a prince and I was trying to show my costume houses that I
wanted to see through these dresses like this. And I couldn’t. I was trying to
invent something so I made this little doll. And you know what it worked because I
was able to take a look the little doll and of course everyone laughed very indulgently at me and they said William and his dolls… But, here we go. And so all the ball gowns are like this. Bullets Over Broadway is a backstage musical and the story is basically no
one wants to give any money except for the gangster who said i’ll give you
money for your show but my girlfriend has to have a big role in it. That’s old story, in fact it still happens
today. in fact it’s one of my shows right now. Anyway because we’re overexposed to
gangsters at the moment I just some trying to very hard to make my take on it different. I’ve lined them up like this because
these are all the gangsters. Here’s the set and all this color is
this is based on this art deco door. I like turning it upside down because then
you’re not reading it. So the interesting thing to do, which is very exciting for me, is to try
to keep that color, very strict color scheme so you’ve got like all these gangsters on stage, but you want them all to be tied together in front of this.
Well there aren’t enough colors in this. And then I found this wonderful
Bug picture 1925, which actually has little bits green little bits of blue. That’s sort of a peach but anyway that’s
that’s the job that’s the assignment. Because unlike a film we see all these
people on stage head to toe. I have to help the audience know where
to look. In fact often on stage, I have the leading ladies understudy standing next to her. Well guess what? I’ve got to, I often tell her, I said darling I’m so terribly sorry I have a bear you under a bushel. I still wake up in the morning so
excited about what I’m doing. My favorite centerpiece of my life is in the fitting room. I’m often aware of the fact the body
language and fitting. I can always tell that aha moment. It’s very exciting because then they can
see themselves being transformed. I often start with vintage underwear. Even though no one will see. It’s like
the inside of a pocket books. I always fill pocketbooks with compacts and period lipstick and period handkerchiefs that helped someone realized this is where I am this
is what I’m doing. I was, I think I was, six maybe I was
five or four, but I had this wonderful dog named Manteo and she would follow me everywhere, you know, move when I moved and sit when I sat. I got a needle and
thread and I had the end of a pillowcase. that was already hemmed. And I
remember taking, I remember this taking the needle and thread and going
in and out all the way around. I think I ran out of thread or something I
remember and I thought oh I have to get around there and I pulled it and I
invented pleating and I put it on my dog and I tightened it more and it was a
rough a ruffled collar for my dog. I invented it. That was my first my first costume. I love the news. JPMorgan’s legal hurdles expected to multiply. Well that’s all they need. Speedy trains transform China. Well I would think so. Blackberry buyout
offer raises questions. Army of questions. I can’t believe this. I should try to clean this thing up. It’s just awful. And here it… hang on. and Julie Andrews. I designed her costumes for her in one
of the shows that she was, I guess the last one she did. what’s so funny is that I brought around a lot of stuff and she picked what she liked. When it was all over she
asked me what happened to the rest of them she wanted to keep them. [doorbell rings] William. I knew it was you. Oh you’re dressed. I was just going to change. Well don’t change. Never change. I haven’t been here in a while. Uh-huh you remember? I remember
everything that, it’s crazy. It’s when the Emperor, who is on his deathbed, and about to die and Rusenyow sings and then he wakes up. So he doesn’t die. And it’s in color but when I saw it when I saw it on PBS broadcast it was in black and white. Watching that made me want to become a
designer. I was in Art history I was gonna write … I know I know about you, you’re an intellectual. Well, I want to be everything. Later, because I didn’t have a playbill. I found out that you had designed the scenery, and costumes, and props. So you’re the exact reason I wanted to
do this for a living. This crazy thing we do. Oh so there it’s
your fault. It’s my fault. That’s the best thing I’ve done. oh haha William you’re such an addition
to our trade our craft of whatever it is we do. It’s a trade. Really it’s an art. It’s an art form. I always wanted to be an artist so don’t… Don’t tell me I’m a tradesperson. You know? I never studied design. No? No. I didn’t know it existed. I was an artist. I was going to
be an artist. And I got a job without a portfolio at The May company in LA and within two weeks of doing their full page ads. I was just… a mad success, you know? And making all this money. Well I thought it was a lot of money. I
think it was forty five dollars a week. And then Paramount called. Paramount offered me 75 dollars a week. And I said no I’m happy. I’m doing what I want to do/ And then I was telling this man sitting behind me at The May company and he said, you have to take it because not many designers get that offer. So I went and then I thought what am I
doing here? You know? This isn’t what I wanna do.
I’m hanging around sound stages doing nothing. And it’s all a big factory and I’m unhappy. So this woman, this stately woman walked
by me and she saw me loitering because I didn’t know what I was doing there. I
was just hanging around Paramount. And she asked me to do some
color samples for her for these sketches. And it was Karinska. Then she wanted to find out and said I want that girl to be my assistant. When I realized who she was. It wasn’t
just meeting designers. You know meeting designers, Hollywood designers is not that great, at least done as an artist. You think of them as a tradespeople or something. Through her I met all these wonderful artists that she knew. Who were some of the artists you met through Karinska then? Well, Raoul Pène du Bois. He brought her to Paramount. To do his movie Lady in the Dark. Frenchman’s creek. So I go visit him at MGM and wait for him and he’d be busy or something. And then he’d come up and
he said to me, you know who you are sitting next to? And I said, no. He said Marlene I said I’m sitting next to Dietrich? The
whole time I didn’t even look at her. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t recognize
her. So funny. There’s Balanchine. I’m sitting
right next to him. And which is Raoul? This one back here right next to
Karinska. That’s Raoul’s boyfriend. I tell you isn’t an extraordinary education . I wanted to be a designer. I couldn’t pick the two most important people in costumes and sets than Karinska and Raoul Pène du Bois. and where does Balanchine fit into this? Well he was married to an actress. So he was a Stage-door Johnny or was he
choreographing the movie? He was a Stage-door Johnny. He had an eye for girls. These are the ballets that I did. You know who he is? Baryshnikov. He was the most
beautiful dancer. It’s fun to look at all these paints. I’ve never seen you do this. Oh look on the other side this is a ballet. This is the bottom of a tutu. You’re involved in dance from the very
beginning. You see the choreographer talks about an
idea. Then he or she is working on
expressing that idea in movement. And you’re involved from that moment on and trying to create the idea in through dance. And so I think your involvement is deeper, Plays of course, it can do that too, but they’re pretty much, well so is dance, done for an audience. But, you’re not aware of that as much. You’re involved with the idea of what the dance is about. I remember doing a play and having a
fitting with two women. And they had been talking about me and how little I, you know, she knows and they were really terribly superior and and, oh god what am I gonna do? So I went in and a friend of mine came
up at the fitting and she said, Oh did you read what Jonathan Miller wrote
about you in the New York Times. And I said no I haven’t had a chance to. So I
found it. It was a wonderful article. And those two bitches who were in the play, naturally saw it because he was their
director as well as mine. And so I didn’t have to defend
myself at all. It was there in print. It’s always that early in your life you
remember those things because you’re so raw and emotional about what you’re
doing because you’re so vulnerable when you’re a young designer. You know…. You’re so lucky to get the job and then
not to shortchange the director, or whoever is terrible, you just,
you never get over that. They have to go through it and harden themselves. It prepares you for your next
director your next show. And it toughens you but also you learn
from these things. I always say three things. When you’re starting out, you’re a puppy dog. a golden retriever; You are
licking with your tongue. You’re so excited you’re jumping up knocking people over. Then the second moment in life: Shakespeare had seven ages of man. I have three. The second one is knowledge. You learn.
You understand. You have knowledge. You make discerning choices and you’re a
professional. The third and final stage is wisdom and wisdom has the effect of
you sit in you’re comfortable chair, you have your single malt scotch right
at your hand, and you go you know maybe we just don’t do that. I just hope wisdom doesn’t take over. [End Credits]


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *