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Costumes on Broadway: The Visual Storytellers of Theater

Updated: May 23, 2019


Theater requires the art of expression in order to entertain an audience. Although it may appear that acting is the only necessity for this craft, graphic elements are essential for storytelling as well. Throughout the 20th century in New York City, costume design was a primary contributor to the art of theater. The career became prominent in the 1920’s as a result of the increasing necessity for a “single designer to control all of the visual elements of a production” (Owen xiii). At the same time, Broadway shows were veering towards celebrity power to attract larger audiences; these productions attempted to find personal costume designers to appeal to celebrities.


However, costume designers were not credited on numerous playbills for their contributions to Broadway shows. During the early 1900’s, “the presence of a costume design credit was rare” and did not begin appearing until 1940 (Owen 118). Even during the ‘40s, the costume designer’s credit was in the back of the program alongside “acknowledgements to piano tuners and furniture stores” rather than towards the front with fellow designers of the production (Owen 118). Costume designers were not properly acknowledged until the late 1900’s; these individuals now receive fame and overall recognition in the present Broadway community. Their costumes create layered dimensions within a performance by adding physical qualities to a character; the designs embellish the personality. Costume designs for Broadway performances also elevate the visual appeal of the scenery, as well as help progress the plot of the show.


Costumes provide visual support by expanding both the physical and emotional elements within the overall production. During the creative process, costume designers often refer to historical backgrounds of certain eras as inspiration for their pieces. Designers tend to use a technique called “concept production,” which “incorporates details from varying eras” (Fashionista). The Broadway musical Anastasia involved an array of sketches inspired by various countries that ranged from “Russia in 1907, the revolution, to Paris in the 1920’s” (Billboard). Costumers intermix both the historical aesthetic and their own imaginative twist within their designs. The color palette of Lindsey Cho, the Anastasia couturier, contained “browns reminiscent of those in a Cubist painting” for the Russian Revolution, as well as “inspiration from the golden and bronze metallic hues of Gustav Klimt’s work” for a ballet scene (Billboard). These designers focus on fabricating cohesive attire that offers a clearer direction within a performance, not a distraction. By accomplishing this cohesion, the audience becomes immersed within the time period.


Nevertheless, several Broadway shows sometimes require fictitious features, making historical evidence unreliable as inspiration. In the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, costume designer Mark Thompson aimed towards a “slightly childlike illustration feeling” for his garments “with a heavy focus on proportion” (Billboard). The whimsical costumes based on the beloved Roald Dahl novel relied more on the creativity of Thompson’s vision rather than a concrete era.


Beyond the aesthetic appeal of costumes, technical elements within these designs also enable a fluid transition between each scene. Both quick and fast changes devise a prompt transformation without interrupting the storyline. A quick change is approximately four seconds long and typically occurs onstage, while a fast change is about fifteen seconds and occurs offstage. The metamorphosis of Cinderella’s peasant dress to a ball gown in Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella consists of a combination of “buttons, magnets, velcro, hooks and carefully threaded fishing wire” (Fashionista). Tony Award-winning costumer William Ivey Long attempted to “include the spinning in all [his] sketches” for Cinderella’s ball gown so there was constant movement throughout the production design. Through the use of deception and utilizing unconventional mediums, Ivey Long managed to capture the iconic transformation from the fairytale for a live performance.


Even the material itself provides technical qualities while achieving this visual appeal. The costumes in Pippin had to accommodate the various stunts the acrobats performed in the musical. Tony-nominated costumer Dominique Lemieux used Lycra due to its elasticity; she had to create pieces that were “both flexible for the acrobatics and durable for the long haul” (NPR). Costumes endure multiple beatings throughout the course of the show, so their designers search for sustainable materials that are capable of camouflaging within the piece. The basis of these Pippin outfits were later decorated in an ornate, yet harmonious way to complement the theme of show. Both the comfort and resilience of these garments equip the actors to move freely during the performance; there are no restrictions that would inhibit actors from narrating the musical.


Furthermore, there are occurrences in which the costume itself is not the sole visual device for a musical or play. During the climax of the Broadway musical Wicked, Elphaba is elevated high off the ground while the performer belts the number “Defying Gravity.” With the use of a custom-made hydraulic lift, a metal bar––“covered with the same fabric as her dress” to veil the machinery––“encircle[s] her waist and secure[s] her to the platform” (Cheap Theatre Tickets). The performer soars through the air with ease and enhances the dramatic vigor within the end of the first act. These designs can involve practical components, such as pulleys and other mechanics, to intensify the situation seamlessly during a scene.


However, incidents occasionally occur during theater performances in which costumes cause distractions. Wardrobe malfunctions can interrupt a scene by throwing-off both the actor and the audience. Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark was acclaimed for its dauntless stunts, including the performers hovering above the audience during the final fight sequence. Stunt doubles in Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark suffered multiple injuries during the production’s runtime on Broadway. Performer Daniel Curry was injured in August 2013 after his “foot [got] caught in the lift and then pinned when a trap door closed on it” (The New York Times). Curry eventually filed a lawsuit claiming that his accident during the show was “due to malfunctioning equipment in the show, and not to human error” (The New York Times). Many other actors who portrayed Spider-man ensemble dancers were harmed during Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, which led to the concern of viewers about the actual safety of this show rather than the storyline. Despite the awe extravagant costumes and mechanics produce, the potential risk of a performer or an audience member jeopardizes the charm of the show.


These costume errors can cause actors to break character as well. Broadway actor Barrett Wilbert Weed, who portrays Janis Sarkisian in the musical Mean Girls, recalls a time in which her co-star Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron) suffered an outfit mishap onstage during a musical number. After the quick change, Henningsen’s silk top was completely around her waist, leaving her bra exposed to the audience. Both Weed and her other co-star, Grey Henson (Damian Hubbard), attempted to fix Henningsen’s top and simultaneously maintain character. Weed eventually covered Henningsen in her oversized jacket while Hensen “furiously buttoned-up the jacket” on his knees, causing the actors to “completely dissolve into hysterical laughter” due to the chaotic situation (The Tonight Show). Despite the vigorous attempts of actors to persist with the show, wardrobe malfunctions break the moment for both the actors and viewers. Any sign of error causes the audience to question the situation rather than witness the scene.


Although technical flaws with costumes sometimes emerge, the designs still give actors the ability to transform into their characters. According to Tony Award-winning actor Sutton Foster, a stage costume has the ability to “completely change a performance or make a performance finally cohesive” (Fashionista). Foster stated, “‘When I’m rehearsing, I’m in my Lululemon pants and my hair is on top of my head…I put on a dress and a pair of shoes and a wig and I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘I transformed into someone else’” (Fashionista). By convincing the actor that they have embodied their character, the audience will reciprocate the same experience.


Even minimal pieces illustrate the personality of a character while also leaving clues for both the actor and audience members to pinpoint for themselves. Kate Voice, the costume designer for the 1980 play True West, searched for contemporary items that would “[serve] the actors in their performances” and “[illuminate] [the show] in a subliminal way” (Forbes). Voice stated, “‘If an actor doesn’t feel comfortable in a garment it’s really hard to believe it as a costume. Sometimes you want something to be ill-fit or a little strange–but the actor has to make the connection physically’” (Forbes). Costume designers are responsible for both the external appearance of the production, as well as influencing the actor that they are a new persona when slipping into their outfit. The designs encompass an array of functions to produce these connections, thus enabling the actors to unfold the story. Without connections, the intrigue of the show dwindles due to unconvincing characterization.


Costume designs elevate the context of the performance simply through the use of fabrics and often machinery. The visual aesthetic of these outfits persuade the audience members that they are briefly engrossed within the realm alongside these characters. Besides the demeanor of the show’s wardrobe, technical features ease the story into its transitions and intensify climactic moments during the performance. Actors experience this same effect as well by slipping into these ensembles; they possess the physical components of their character and strengthen the connection with their role. Even though these costumes are not commonly available to the public, there should still be a universal appreciation for the artistry in crafting these pieces.


Before the curtains rise, actors await onstage and prepare to narrate a story. These individuals, however, are not the only members with a rigorous job. The costume crew resides offstage with a rack full of costumes, ready to encounter transitions or any issues that could potentially jeopardize a scene. The orchestra introduces the score, signaling the commencement of the show.


Works Cited


Healy, Patrick. “Injured 'Spider-Man' Actor Blames Equipment Malfunction.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2013, artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/18/ injured-spider-man-actor-blames-equipment-malfunction/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.


Owen, Bobbi. Costume Design on Broadway: Designers and Their Credits, 1915-1985. Greenwood Press, 1987.


The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “A Wardrobe Malfunction Took Over a Mean Girls Scene.” uploaded by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, YouTube, 23 Apr. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UP1SvLtT6fk. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.


Hoo, Fawnia Soo. “The Fascinating Process Behind How Broadway's Most Spectacular Costumes Are Made.” Fashionista, 28 Feb. 2017, fashionista.com/2017/02/broadway- costumes-design-tony-awards. Accessed 22 Mar. 2019.


King, Darryn. “What Does A Broadway Costume Designer Actually Do?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 26 Jan. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/darrynking/2019/01/26/what-does-a- broadway-costume-designer-actually-do/#73ef6ff91c05. Accessed 25 Mar. 2019.


Lunden, Jeff. “Clothes Make The Man (And The Woman, And The Show) On Broadway.” NPR, NPR, 9 June 2013, www.npr.org/2013/06/09/189302426/clothes-make-the-man-and-the- woman-and-the-show-on-broadway. Accessed 25 Mar. 2019.


Mazurek, Brooke. “Broadway's Chicest Costume Designers on Making the Season's Most Memorable Musical Looks: Exclusive.” Billboard, 28 Apr. 2017, www.billboard.com/ articles/news/broadway/7776759/broadway-costume-designers-interview-tony- nominations. Accessed 22 Mar. 2019.


“The Behind-the-Scenes Magic of Wicked.” Cheap Theatre Tickets, www.cheaptheatretickets.com/the-behind-the-scenes-magic-of-wicked/. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

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