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Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome back! This is going to be a simpler, one-part review, but I wanted to introduce my readers to some of the costumes of William Ivey Long. Mr. Long is a six-time Tony Award winner who uses bold colors and period designs to create some pretty fantastic costumes for whatever costume he is creating in a production, and I will definitely be looking at a number of his productions as this blog continues.
I decided to make this introduction using an all-too-often overlooked production, the 2009 Broadway run of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. I’ve long been a fan of Dolly Parton’s music, and country/western in general, so I enjoyed this production quite a bit. The original run starred Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty, and so it never really suffered for lack of star power. Unfortunately, the New York critics (led by Ben Brantley…) didn’t see the appeal of this piece of classic 1970s nostalgia, and the show closed after just a five month run. Fortunately, it has enjoyed a longer life on tour and did manage a well-regarded West End production in 2012.
The musical is based on the 1980 movie of the same name, which was originally costumed by Academy Award and Tony Award-winning designer Ann Roth. Those original costumes fit the time period of the movie quite well, and Mr. Long clearly took some inspiration from them when he produced his designs for the stage musical. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the costuming he came up with for this personal favorite of mine (with general apologies for the size of the stills being a bit smaller!):
These first outfits could easily have come straight out of the closet of any sensible, working woman of the mid- to late-1970s, and each has design elements that make them unique. When you are building a costume that is supposed to feel “average” or “relatable,” you face different challenges than when you are designing for a more lavish production. I noted that these challenges exist when I looked at Laura Osnes’ Bandstand costumes some time ago, but I think Mr. Long overcame them. What you want in a period piece about average people is for the costumes to feel accessible. I look at these costumes and, while clearly lovingly designed, I can see them coming out of my mother’s closet when she was first starting out her career, or any number of women I know who lived through the 1970s and 1980s. A common theme is that these costumes are visually appealing without being over the top or intensely adorned.
Another shot of our three leading ladies in the same costumes lets us take a closer look at some of the details, though, that make these costumes visually appealing and interesting to behold:
Going from the viewer’s left to right, I’ll start with Ms Hilty’s white dress, a definite homage to the Dolly Parton character in the original movie. If you know anything about Ms Parton, you know that she has a somewhat outrageous, flirty (almost bawdy) sense of humor, and a personality that is a bit larger than life–all characteristics that Ms Hilty shares in this role.
The white dress itself is relatively simple, with just a hint of 1970s style in the way there is light fringe on the hem of the dress as well as around the collar and at the end of the sleeves. The fabric itself is designed to stretch to hug a woman’s figure, and it does that job nicely in this production. The only kind of adornment that we can see clearly is in the form of the belt around Ms Hilty’s waist. It’s simple, in leather I believe, with just a gold clasp. The idea here is to let the wearer’s figure do the work, with the dress as a kind of blank slate for the audience to just regard as part of the character themselves.
In the middle, we have Ms Janney in a signature red outfit. I really like this dress for a number of reasons. It has an element of power in it, likely because of the absolutely essential high shoulders of the era, which Mr Long has managed to make look natural to the outfit rather than appearing to be shoulder pads when you first regard the dress. The color is an absolutely darling shade of red that is aided by the material itself, which flows nicely down Ms Janney’s tall profile. The (non-functional/decorative) buttons that adorn the top are a nice bit of accent work that is quite common to pieces from the period; these kinds of tops were often inspired my military uniforms or aviator jackets, and I like that they add a bit of shine to a matte dress. The belt, in a crimson or deep rust color, is a nice accent to break up the single color of the dress, and I like that the clasp of the belt is all leather as well. That was something that was just starting to be the style in women’s fashion, and it is a neat throwback on the part of Mr. Long.
Ms Block’s blue dress, however, might be one of my favorites from this production, and it’s the one she spends the most time in throughout the musical. By the time this musical is set, fashion had evolved to the point where patterned dresses were easily affordable by every woman who had a job; they were no longer the hallmark of couture or something expensive. There’s an abstract theme to this pattern which comes through in Mr Long’s use of color. The overall color is blue, but there are splashes of greens, of whites, and even of a light purple. This gives the dress an almost marbled appearance that comes out even more in another scene:
I absolutely love the colors of this dress and the way they appear slightly different depending on the lighting as it hits Ms Block. But another thing I really like is the half-jabot that Mr Long included. That’s the element at Ms Block’s neck that hangs down almost like a miniature cravat or ribbons. It adds an element of flair to the dress which, while impressive, would otherwise be a relatively simple A-line. It is constructed out of the same fabric as the dress, but with more blue than splashes of other color included, which helps it to stand out just a little bit more.
It also helps differentiate the character a little bit more. Ms Block’s character is not as sultry as Ms Hilty’s, nor is she as confident as Ms Janney’s, and the dress shows that off. Despite the patterning, it’s the most traditionally conservative number, a pattern that is repeated with almost every one of Ms Block’s costumes. Take a look at the still I used above to illustrate the blue dress in more detail. Ms Hilty’s dress is once again fringed and far more revealing, while Ms Janney has a very business-like skirtsuit in deep blues with a pink blouse underneath. By contrast, Ms Block’s dress appears more old-fashioned in terms of design, which I think just works really well.
Herein lies one of the reasons that I always argue costumes and costuming are the most important elements of a musical or stage production following, of course, the music and dialogue themselves. Actors and actresses differ greatly in terms of their talents and strong suits, and characters differ even more widely. What a costumer needs to do is help give the audience a sense of who they are looking at that transcends the human element and goes to something a little more primal: color and style are apparent even when we don’t quite understand the double meaning of a lyric or line of spoken dialogue. Take a look at this other set of costumes, this time in outerwear, something I haven’t devoted a lot of time to on this blog because it so rarely appears on Broadway:
Once again, each of these three women has a very different coat for the scene. Ms Hilty’s is tight to her body, showing off her bust and figure, and the slight shimmer of the blue leatherette fabric is in keeping with the character’s more showy nature (the character later goes on to a Nashville career, and was played in the original movie by Dolly Parton herself, so that’s not a surprise!). Ms Janney’s overcoat is once again the more sophisticated number, showing off a sense of power and confidence. It’s simple and in the same red as her showstopping outfit from earlier, and the belt is simple and unadorned in the same color as the overall piece. The addition of the scarf adds a little bit of extra color, but it also gives her an even more sophisticated look; it feels a little like classic movie star styling, which again fits the character well.
But then there is Ms Block’s number, a coat that’s in a soft, pale pink. I’ve remarked before about how designers will often use pink to imbue a design and a character with a kind of innocence, and I think that comes through here as well. The coat is functional, conservative, and pretty, fitting the slightly more timid nature of Ms Block’s character. The subtle differences between it and those worn by her two friends are a master stroke by Mr Long in his costume design: clearly she’s the most uncomfortable of the three with their ongoing scheme, and the most innocent. But she’s still there, she’s still taking part, and she’s still working to get her due–she’s just going to be a lot more quiet about it!
There’s one last set of costumes I want to look at before I offer some concluding remarks, and it’s these:
Once again, we have all three of our leading ladies together in one shot, and their costumes once again match their personalities. Ms Block’s is once again the most conservative of the three entries, with the skirt being a beige number with a light plaid pattern to it and a belt to match. The blouse is more richly patterned, but again the choice of color makes her seem the plainest of the three characters–and that’s quite alright! There’s something impressive about the consistency of the costuming for her character, and it shows Mr Long knows exactly the kind of vision he wanted to see her give off while onstage.
Ms Janney’s costume, while the simplest in construction, is once again bold in its use of color: the starkness of the white blouse is coupled with the deep blue of the skirt, and the two are separated by a thick brown belt that shows off a sense of power–especially on a woman of Ms Janney’s height (if she appears tall in this production, it’s because she is–at six feet even).
Finally, Ms Hilty is in a dress rather than a combination like her two costars; it has a light pattern and is in a more silky fabric than anything else we have seen on any of the actresses so far. It’s more revealing of her bust than the other two, and it hugs her figure far more directly. The belt is composed of the same fabric as the dress itself, and the overall effect is just a bit more sultry.
9 to 5 was a show that, sadly, fell victim to the critics’ views of it, despite a record 15 Drama Desk nominations (including one for Mr Long and his costumes) and 4 Tony nominations, as well as fairly healthy ticket sales. But what we were left with was a series of interesting costumes that tell different stories about the characters who wear them throughout the production and the performances of the musical. They’re period pieces without being overdone, they’re accessible without being boring, and they’re colorful without being overly ostentatious.
In other words, they’re beautiful outings by a gifted and skilled costume designer, and they deserve to be appreciated by the theatre community. Mr Long, this blogger salutes your designs, and cannot wait to review more of your work on other productions!
That wraps it up for my 9 to 5 review. Coming up this week will be, as promised, a Part III to my An American in Paris series, as well as some brand new shows that I haven’t yet taken a look at on the blog. As always, send me your thoughts, comments, and feedback in the reblogs or through the Ask box; it’s always open!
aarontveit: Thanks #linmanuelmiranda for moderating the #GreaseLiveFYC tonight! We were missing the rest of our Grease family! But what an amazing thing to look back to 8 months ago!! Can I just work with these people and everyone involved for the rest of my life!? What a thing!! #greaselive #greaseistheword #borntohandjive #Tvuko #IMeanItsCoolBaby (x)
I finally caught the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Los Angeles. I really liked it. I especially like the costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Had to draw Ella when I got home.