As a velvet curtain reveals a stage ears drift from song to lyrics; eyes from sets to spotlights. Yet, the show is like a masquerade. The actors use their parts as masks, and their costumes as expressions of true self. The connection between show and costume has long been established as beauty, but there’s more to Glinda’s dazzling, sky-blue gown and Sweeney Todd’s distressed, monochromatic vests than meets the eye. As theater progressed, so did the costumes that were involved in the spectacles. Gowns turned to jeans and t-shirts, fedoras became beanies, and character shoes became high heels. It isn’t hard to see that costumes took on the trends of their time period. As musicals became representations of everyday life, shows like Next to Normal and “Fun Home” began using these fashion items as their costumes. Even period pieces like “Hamilton”, are relying on more modern styles, like the nude, minimalist trend. The world evolves, fashion changes, and theatre, as a representation of life, listens.
Yet, that doesn’t meant that costumery is only looking at fast fashion trends. Many of the pieces worn in classic musicals are actually similar to the high fashion designs of today’s runways, and vice versa. Cecil Beaton was an Academy-Award winning costume and set designer for the famous Lerner + Loewe musicals “Gigi” and, more popularly, “My Fair Lady.” The classic musical, set in the early 1900s of England, eventually sparked a film starring Audrey Hepburn. Her most famous costume is a white and black full length dress, with a flamboyant hat topped with gigantic bows and flowers.
Beaton’s work has influenced fashion for generations, and versions of his hats are seen in today’s Kentucky Derby. On top of that, however, fashion designers like Philip Treacy are known for their outrageous, albeit wonderful, designs. His hats have been Campbell soup cans, the inside of a flower, and dark castles. His designs have influenced designers of today even though he originally created these pieces for a time long past.
In the most recent revival of “Gigi”, Beaton’s original pieces were pulled upon but with a more modern twist. Vanessa Hudgen’s sleek, black gown takes on a more modern twist, resembling the dress and pantsuit look that is becoming more popular on the runways and red carpets. Most recently even, Sarah Hyland of “Modern Family” attended the Emmy Awards in a Monique Lhuillier dress similar in shape to the designs. “Gigi’s” costume designer, Catherine Zuber, has even said that she uses the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazar to design the costumes for her musicals. Gucci’s latest fashion show at New York Fashion Week even uses costumery obviously in its pieces. The outfits are costumes in themselves; fabrics, prints, and designs that you would more likely see on the stage rather than in real life. Costumery has almost molded with high fashion, and sometimes it is hard to tell the two apart.
Musicals continue to use high fashion, but as the new realm of theater proves to be prominent in our society, the costumes are becoming less reliant on the runway and more reliant on the streets right outside their doors. It is only recently, however, that Broadway made this switch. Musicals and plays often focus on the time period they’re written in, but as the years go on those costumes become dated. For Broadway hit “Next to Normal,” their clothes represent 21st century life. It almost brings a realism to the have the main characters like, Diana, a mother and her “rebellious” son, Gabe, dressed in business-casual and sweatshirts.
Not only do costumes become everyday fashion, but everyday fashion has begun to look more like costumery. Military jackets, shoes purposefully made to look like character shoes, and even corsets are becoming common staples in looks around the globe. On top of that, celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga use costumes as part of their personality and identity. While they’re more outrageous than the costumes that grace the theatre stage, their outfits are still costumes. They are still putting on a show. And people copy it. Miley Cyrus helped leotards become a trend. Lady Gaga, although not directly, enforced Moschino’s brand identity which in turn inspired fast-fashion stores to replicate it for the masses. Even Musicals have created a similar trend. “Les Miserables” sparked a kind-of “character dressing,” where people take the costumes worn by the characters in the musical, and use modern clothes to recreate them in everyday life.
However, fashion not only uses the trends found in Forever21 and Express, but also takes those trends and manipulates them to its own use. While “Next to Normal” used jeans and t-shirts, shows like “Wicked” use trends in a way that many people don’t simply see when they first look at their dresses. Elphaba’s redesigned gown, however, is pure black, covered in sequins, and looks like an (overly-priced, Elie Saab) prom dress. The piece is a gown that people recognize as the Wicked Witch of the West’s, but it’s also a gown that someone would want in their own closet. It’s a gown that not only looks beautiful, but looks modern in a show full of flying monkeys and magic.
However, nothing uses trends as beautifully in their costumery as the smash-hit “Hamilton.” Designed by Paul Tazewell, each piece is reminiscent of the 18th century with a hint of 21st. Tazewell said in an interview that he was also pulling contemporary fashion images that could have had influences from the 18th century, while keeping a contemporary feel in the costumes themselves. While the story is set during the American Revolution, the clothes the characters are wearing feel and look modern. Especially, the ensemble’s nude, minimalist uniforms. They are an image of uniformity, a trend that has cropped up in recent years, and neither gender’s costumes look ridiculously different from one another: the women are wearing bow ties, the men are wearing knee-high black boots. In fact, “Hamilton” almost seems to have a gender-neutral costumery design (excluding its main characters). The show represents the world we are living in not only through its story, but through the clothes its characters wear.
Costumery is no longer just costumery. Traces of these pieces are found in the fashion industry, on the streets of New York or on the streets of a small town in Florida. And yet, costume designers also use high fashion to create the world, a beauty on the stage as the lights go up. When the curtain falls, red velvet waving in a soft draft, the story is not the only aspect of the show that remains relevant.