On the Twentieth Century's Tony-Nominated Costume Designer Explains the Timeless Fashion That Makes the Show Really Sing

<em>On the Twentieth Century</em>'s Tony-Nominated Costume Designer Explains the Timeless Fashion That Makes the Show Really Sing
Joan Marcus
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In honor of the 69th Annual Tony Awards, we’re taking a look at some of the shows that have spectacular costumes this season. The Tony Awards, hosted by Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, airs Sunday, June 7th on CBS.

Kristin Chenoweth, the actress who famously originated the role of many of Broadway’s most beloved characters—including Glinda in Wicked—is back on the Great White Way this season with another hit, On the Twentieth Century. In this comedic musical revival, she plays Lily Garland, formerly known as Mildred Plotka, the glam Hollywood starlet who boards an N.Y.C.–bound train with her ex-flame Oscar Jaffe (Peter Gallagher) and nothing goes as it seems. The production scored five Tony nominations at this morning’s announcement, including the coveted Best Revival nod and one Best Actress nomination for Chenoweth herself (who just so happens to be hosting the award show alongside fellow Broadway vet Alan Cumming).

However, we were also pleased to see it earned a Best Costume Design of a Musical nomination. Broadway favorite William Ivey Long conceived the looks behind this two-and-a-half hour '30s-era show. Several weeks ago, we caught up with Ivey Long over the phone—while he was sewing on the wedding dress look in the upper lobby no less—to get the scoop on the throwback costumes.

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Turns out, the late 1930s is his most favorite period to design for. “It’s right before the war and right before the women start with those big shoulder pads, so it’s still very feminine,” he told InStyle. “This is the kind of fashion that comes back every few years because it’s such a classic. And there’s a reason for that: Everybody looks good.”

So how did he make Chenoweth and her fellow castmates stand out? Scroll down to find out the costume designer’s thoughts on the most glowing standout color, the magic of on-stage-transformations, and more.

When we first see Kristin Chenoweth, she’s a frumpy Mildred Plotka. Then she turns into the fabulous screen siren Lily Garland. How did you approach the transformation?

“We meet her in a dream, in a flashback of the director (Gallagher). What he remembers is this little, non-descript working girl. But he saw talent and potential in her. Then she miraculously transforms into a star in this production number called "Veronique." One of my favorite things on Broadway is figuring out transformations. I can’t tell you how it happens—it’s magic."

Joan Marcus

For the rest of the musical, you have her dressed in soft, glowing pink tones. Why is that?

“My inspiration was that she was like the screen goddesses Jean Harlow and Carol Lombard [ed. note: Lombard portrayed the character in the 1934 movie]. Everything is platinum, their hair and their clothes, it’s just shiny and satin. I tried to find the colors that would make her skin just glow. I wanted her to look like the inside of a mother of pearl. If you want it to be a rosy irresistible glow, you use soft pinks. And of course, Lilys are white. It’s like when someone is named Bianca, you better put them in white because it’s their name. Lily is a hint of what to put her in.”

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Joan Marcus

When she steps on the train, she’s wearing a dress with a jacket over it that looks like someone could wear it present day. Were you going for a timeless look?

“It could totally be worn today. It features an empire cut with see-through eyelash chiffon and little satin squares. It’s very art deco. But the proportions are very delicate because they’re to fit Kristin’s petite proportions. She looks like one long drink of water.”

Joan Marcus

Being it’s in the 20th century and a period look, were there any aspects you wanted to make modern?

“Yes! You want the audience to appreciate that she is a sinuous, sexy, alluring, complete superstar screen siren. In order to affect that, the period elements have to be pleasing to today’s eye. Without compromising the story, you have to choose period elements that are timeless. For this, I think it’s the art deco elements, the fact it hugs her body, and the elongating length of it."

Joan Marcus

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Even when she’s relaxing, she’s in a fabulous robe. What was your inspiration?

“It’s best to see this in person so you can look at the fabric. It looks like a fish scale design that goes from very small to larger, and it echoes the wallpaper on the wall in the train compartment. It isn’t fur, its marabou. Fur would have been too heavy. Then she wears a sequin gold gown underneath. I made it so it looks like she’s naked and just caressed by this sequined, gauzy dress. This is how my mind works!”

Joan Marcus

The men also have very specific looks. What was your inspiration for the boys?

“I have a favorite period: 1936 to 1938 in Europe. Every one of the great designers is working at the top of the game, it’s right before World War II and it’s right before the big shoulders get carried away. For the men, there’s never been a more flattering, handsome, masculine silhouette than at this time because you’ve got the broad shoulders, the nipped-in waist, and the full-cut pants. I just think it’s so handsome, and everyone looks good in it. I could even wear it, and I don’t have shoulders.”

Find tickets for On the Twentieth Century on roundabouttheatre.org. The production runs until July 5, 2015.

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