Clothes make the man — and the woman — as the old adage proclaims. And that is doubly so in the case of theater. Those who act on the stage will tell you that the costumes are the final piece in their transformation into their characters. The work of a great costume designer is to establish personality, time, place, and attitude through the right clothing. Over the years, there have been some amazing costumes on the stage, but there are a few standouts that have achieved icon status. We take a look at 14 of the Broadway musical costumes that we love and remember.
Nellie Forbush’s “Honey Bun” Costume in South Pacific
Mary Martin was adored for her lovely singing voice, but also for her coquettish personality in some shows and her wholesome, childlike naiveté in others. The first image that almost always comes to mind when thinking of this incandescent star is her in her oversize sailor suit as Nellie Forbush singing “Honey Bun” in the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1949 musical South Pacific. It was a simple sailor suit complete with hat and an extremely long neckerchief that Martin twirled to comedic effect. Costumes for South Pacific were designed by Elizabeth Montgomery of Motley Theatre Design Group.
Anna Leanowens’s “Shall We Dance” Gown in The King and I
A Broadway musical costume that was not only stunningly gorgeous, but it had a heartbreaking story to go with it. Irene Sharaff’s design of the ball gown that Anna Leanwowens wears to the British envoy reception in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I was a wide-hooped silken affair. The dress was particularly splendid during the “Shall We Dance” number in which Anna and The King ballroom-dance with increasing intensity, the gown’s layers and hoops twirling and cascading across the stage. When Broadway’s original Anna, actress Gertrude Lawrence, died during the run of The King and I, one of her final wishes was to be buried in Sharaff’s dress. Her wish was honored.
Eliza Doolittle’s Ascot Dress in My Fair Lady
Has there ever been a more elegant costume design for a Broadway musical than Cecil Beaton’s work in the original 1956 production of My Fair Lady? For a musical about a poor flower girl who transforms into perceived royalty, it was essential that the costumes visually capture the evolution of her station in life as a result of her lessons in speech. Among Beaton’s most distinguished designs was the dress that Julie Andrews wore as Eliza Doolittle in the scene at the Ascot horse races. Making her first public appearance since her lessons began, Eliza was dressed in a floor-length cameo pink gown with flared cuffs, a wide-brimmed hat elegantly festooned with tiny pink flowers, and, of course, an extravagant matching parasol.
Conrad Birdie’s Gold Lamé Jumpsuit in Bye, Bye, Birdie
When we think of the 1960 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, the first vision we have is of Dick Gautier as the Elvis Presley–like Conrad Birdie gyrating to “Honestly Sincere” in a gold lamé jumpsuit. Miles White designed this eye-catching costume, certainly an homage to Presley and the form-fitting, sparkling getups that helped make him music royalty. Rock star and recently-drafted Conrad Birdie has just come to small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, where he will give “One Last Kiss” to a lucky teenage fan before he reports for military duty. His introduction to the town in this flashy garb is in stark contrast to the wholesome denizens of this traditional community, making even the old ladies swoon.
The “Paris Original” in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Having the perfect dress for a party, a one-of-a-kind original to show off so others will pine with jealousy, is a must! This idea was hilariously spoofed in the 1961 musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying when the ladies of the World Wide Wicket Corporation show up at an office shindig, all wearing the same exact “Paris Original” dress. The men in the office barely notice until the resident bombshell, Hedy LaRue, shows up in the frock, eclipsing all others. Robert Fletcher designed the unforgettable garment.
Dolly Levi’s Harmonia Gardens Dress in Hello, Dolly!
Freddie Wittop’s tailored and colorful costume designs for the 1964 Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! won him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design. Of all the finery adorned with “beads and buckles and bows,” the most memorable costume in the show was Dolly Levi’s Harmonia Gardens dress. A full-length scarlet gown, glittering with tiny baubles, accessorized with long, white gloves and a feathered headdress made for an eye-catching ensemble for original star Carol Channing. Sashaying down the stairs to the strains of the musical’s title song, Dolly reclaims her place in society at her favorite haunt. Wittop’s original rendering for the costume was featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, valued at $5,000 for its iconic status as one of Broadway’s most recognizable costumes.
The Emcee’s Outfit in Cabaret
When Joel Grey took the stage in the original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret, he greeted the audience with “Willkommen” in a worn tuxedo and black-and-white makeup that gave him a haunting, almost skeletal quality. Patricia Zipprodt concocted the simple but effective costume, the perfect ensemble for the Emcee of a seedy nightclub in a world where darkness and uncertainly loom. Isn’t this the first image that comes to mind when we think of this Kander and Ebb masterpiece?
Annie’s Red Dress and Wig in Annie
We spend the better part of the musical Annie wondering when we will see our favorite orphan in her iconic red dress and curly orange wig. After all, the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” that inspired this 1977 musical comedy regularly featured the title character in this outfit. Late in the musical’s second act, the payoff comes when Annie arrives in her new duds, designed for this production by the always reliable and prolific costume designer extraordinaire Theoni V. Aldredge.
Carla’s “A Call to the Vatican” Bodysuit in Nine
We may not be able to exactly pinpoint the most iconic Broadway musical costume of all time, but no one will argue that the bodysuit Anita Morris wore in the 1982 musical Nine was the sexiest. Designed by William Ivey Long, this sheer black coverall that essentially covered nothing brought an overt sensual nature to the character. Carefully placed lace patterns and flesh-toned panels kept the actress playing the seductive mistress Carla from being naked, but barely. William Ivey Long won a Tony Award for Nine.
The mask from Broadway’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera, is almost as iconic as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical itself, having been the musical’s logo for three-plus decades. This mask, really a half-mask that covers the disfigured side of the title character’s face, was designed by the late Maria Björnson, who hailed from the world of opera and ballet. Indeed, all of Bjornson’s costume and set designs for The Phantom of the Opera are spectacular in both their beauty and intricacy — but the mask is something special. Form-fitted to the face of each actor who plays the opera ghost, the mask has one extra-special feature: a pronounced nose that Bjornson based on her own proboscis.
Aurora’s Spider Woman Dress in Kiss of the Spider Woman
Florence Klotz pulled off a nonpareil gown for Tony winner Chita Rivera to deliver the title song in the 1993 Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Spider Woman, an angel of death of sorts, clings to the inside of an enormous projection of a web, hypnotizing audiences with her sinister tune, inviting them to their ultimate fate. For the occasion, Klotz designed a full-length dark shift with a glittering spider web pattern covering it, with the addition of a black velvet cape. Klotz won a Tony Award for her efforts.
The long-running musical Wicked has been seen by so many fans since it opened in 2003 that most of the costumes have essentially become iconic due to the show’s longevity. There is, however, one costume among Susan Hilferty’s brilliant and whimsical designs that stands out: Glinda’s bubble dress. When the “Good” Witch of Oz makes her entrance in a traveling bubble, she arrives in an ice-blue, puffy-sleeved, off-the-shoulder gown with a corseted bodice and sequined petals spraying out from the waist. The dress employs nine different fabrics, and it has a harness built into its waistband to secure Glinda to the flying bubble.
The Rags-to-Riches Dress in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella
The age-old fairy tale of Cinderella found a special infusion of magic when it came to Broadway in 2013 with William Ivey Long’s Tony-winning costume design. The designer used his always-sparkling talents in creating a breathtaking transformation of the title character, turning her ragged clothing into a sumptuously ornate ball gown, the change happening right before our eyes. As actress Laura Osnes spun in a circle, a beautiful white ball gown billowed to the floor.
In any other place, a simple blue striped polo shirt would pass below our radar. However, if you put the person wearing it into an arm cast, suddenly we are witnessing one of the most iconic costumes in recent Broadway history. The Evan Hansen polo shirt (and the arm cast) figures prominently in the show’s logo, which has helped to make it a widely recognizable image in pop culture. The costume design by Emily Rebholz is contemporary everyday clothing, but with this singular outfit, she managed to create a distinct image for the title character that we instantly connect with.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His latest book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, was published October 15. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.
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