Between taste and travesty

Between taste and travesty

William Ivey Long in conversation

Between taste and travesty
The cast of Nine in Long's Tony-winning black-and-white designs, built by Barbara Matera Ltd. Photo by Peter Cunningham.


In 2014, William Ivey Long received his fourteenth Tony nomination for costume design. He has won six times, for Nine, Crazy for You, The Producers, Hairspray, Grey Gardens, and Cinderella. He is currently represented on Broadway with Cabaret and Chicago. In 2015, he will return for his forty-fourth season with The Lost Colony, North Carolina’s oldest seasonal outdoor drama. He has designed clothes for such diverse artists as Mick Jagger, Siegfried and Roy, and Joan Rivers as well as for ballets by Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Peter Martins. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2005 and was elected chairman of the American Theatre Wing in 2012.

Dramatics talked with Long as he was preparing for the premiere of the new musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

William Ivey Long in his studio. Photo by Kate Pollard Hoffmann.

DRAMATICS: You grew up in a theatrical family, but from what I've read, it seems that you were dragged into that business, perhaps a bit unwillingly.

WILLIAM IVEY LONG: I was, because it was the family business. I come from a theatrical family—and an academic theatrical family at that. In fact, my father was teaching Shakespeare at McGill when I was conceived. My parents met at Chapel Hill, where they had both joined the Carolina Playmakers—my father having received a scholarship in playwriting. Later, they both taught there, and then my father founded the theatre department at Winthrop. They both taught for their entire careers, and plays were the family business.

Let me now go back a generation. As do most people on the planet, I come from farmers. My grandparents on both sides were farmers, and on my mother’s side they were lumbermen as well. I often say that my parents left the farm to join the circus. The farm image is not too far from the surface of my life.

I came from all that, but it was natural to work in theatre primarily because I’m from the South, which is known for its storytelling. I’ve always been fascinated by stories, particularly in the context of history. My first degree was in history from the College of William and Mary. Then I studied art history at Chapel Hill, before I finally “saw the light” and went to Yale School of Drama, where I studied set design with Ming Cho Lee, one of my early mentors.

I’ve read that your first “costume design” was an Elizabethan collar for your dog Manteo.
Yes. I grew up with dogs. Manteo was named for one of the Indians who Sir Walter Raleigh brought to meet Queen Elizabeth. My family was working with The Lost Colony at the time. In fact, next year will be my forty-fifth season with the show. It’s been a family commitment.

I would play in the scene shop with bits of plywood and build things. I would take fabrics from the costume shop and make clothes. But one day—I was four I think—I saw an old pillowcase we used for polishing silver, and I ripped off the bound edge. Then I took a needle and thread and started going in and out, in and out. I invented pleating and gathering that day! I thought, “This is an Elizabethan ruff like they have in The Lost Colony,” and I put it around my dog’s neck.

I also used to dress up my younger brother, Robert, in biblical costumes, because if you’re a little Episcopal child in the South, you are taught a brightly colored biblical history in vacation Bible school—none of those Old Testament slaughters and murders. I would use blue towels and white sheets to dress Robert as the Virgin Mary—and he would stand there for hours letting me do it. One day my mother came upstairs and saw Robert standing still, holding a baby Jesus, and asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m the Virgin Mary.” “Why? “Well, Billy told me not to move.” So, I guess I’m a director at heart, too.

It took you quite a few years, though, for you to return to costume design.
LONG: It did. It was only when I came to New York that I redirected myself toward clothing, after I apprenticed myself to the great couturier Charles James, another of my mentors.

Cinderalla collage
Top: Long's sketch for the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Ham-
Cinderella. Bottom: Victoria Clark in the realized cost-
ume built by Parsons-Meares Ltd., millinery by Rodney Gordon.
Bottom photo by Carol Rosegg.

What did that on-the-job education in New York teach you?
LONG: Designers are the support team for the directors. I find it difficult to use the word “collaboration.” I’ve been on numerous panels talking about collaboration in theatre. Well, there is no collaboration in theatre. Collaboration implies equality. That is dangerous territory because there’s only one leader. Theatre is a feudal, medieval state with the director as lord of the castle. Everyone provides support to that leader. In school they teach collaboration, but nothing gets you fired quicker than insisting that your opinion is heard on an equal basis.

You’re there to help tell the story. The costume designer’s job is to help the actors become other people, so you should hone those abilities that help you support a serious, focused actor become a certain character. Of course, even before that, you help the director tell the story visually. In other words: who, what, when, where, why, and—sometimes—how.

To that end, my advice to budding designers would be to do anything you can to train your eye. As a designer, the most important thing is your eye. By that I mean proportion, color sense, and the telling detail. The way you improve that is by looking at the world around you, studying books, going to museums, observing nature—and reading as much as you can. Read what interests you—what you’re passionate about. If you don’t yet know what your passion is, keep searching. You’ll eventually find your niche.

I also try to draw something every day, even if it’s just a doodle. A designer should always have a pen, pencil, crayon, or whatever to doodle. Hand to wrist to paper is vital. So is daydreaming. One reason I worry about being so technologically connected is that if you’re always staring at your devices, stimulated by their beeping and vibrating, then when do you have time to dream?

What subjects of study best serve a designer?
LONG: First would be world history, knowing what happened and how it happened. I read three newspapers every day. As I said, I descended from lumbermen, so I love paper. Even if it’s just listening to the news as you’re getting dressed, bring the world into your consciousness. Some people are fascinated by world events. Some people don’t connect to them. But it’s important to know about the human condition, which is what plays explore. Most arts concern the human condition, so don’t skip those history classes—or those biology classes. Figure out how the blood goes around in the body. Pick up leaves and ask yourself, “Why is it orange?” Be as well-rounded as possible. The more curious you are the better. You never know what a show will require.

Recently, when I designed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella for Broadway, we had to create a magical kingdom, a fantastical place that was imaginary but real at the same time—a place where fairy godmothers and jungle beasts and magic exist. I started by studying the forest, because, of course, Cinderella’s house is in the forest. Forest imagery became the basis for the design aesthetic of the whole show.

Did that come from you, the script, or the director?
LONG: It always comes from the director. I can’t stress that more clearly. All the designers pitched in, especially the set designer, but the process was led by the director. We had design meetings in my studio, surrounded by the large insulation boards that I painted white and covered with pictures. One whole wall was just roots: how the roots of trees look like goblins, how they look mysterious. Another wall was butterflies and moths, moths into butterflies. We studied all those boards. Everybody brought their findings or sent them through Dropbox, and I pinned up everybody’s favorites.

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Guys and Dolls
Long's collage of drawings, Polaroid photos, and fabric swatches for the Act I costumes of the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls.

For The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I understand you had Victorian drawings around your room.
LONG: Yes. When we look at Dickens today, we think, “Look at those people in costume.” But Dickens was telling real, contemporary stories. He was telling exactly what the man on the streets looked like and was doing. His stories are like the front pages of newspapers. And while he was alive, I assure you that he signed off on those illustrations. So, the way Mr. Pickwick looked or the way Oliver Twist looked, yes, I surrounded myself with all that. Just so it got under my skin.

When you present your drawings, do you offer a range of ideas or a narrow selection? For Hairspray, I heard that you presented ideas for more than 300 costumes.
LONG: I start by putting the reference pictures for each project on boards. Then I either bring them to the director’s office or invite the director to look at what we’ve done. The director is inspired by different things. I love those little tiny yellow Post-its, which I give to the director to label images that he or she likes. It’s a first pass of what the director feels relates to his or her vision. I start with that. Of course, I’ve assembled these pictures, so there’s already been editing, but the director picks the final vision.

Then I do thumbnail sketches, which are rough drawings that offer variations to the director of “It could be this, or it could be that.” Of course, you have to draw them recognizably enough so the director can say, “I don’t think so. That’s a little too dressy.” After that second stage, I do finished sketches.

So that’s the transformation from idea drawings to working drawings?
LONG: Yes, the finished sketches are the working drawings. It also depends on the relationship you have with the director, though. Certain directors want choices and certain ones want to react to a single look. You need to stay loose, to stay light on your feet, and remain as ready to adapt as you can. Don’t get wedded to a single idea.

What elements of the design do you have the most fun with? Is it the architectural line, the color palette?
LONG: Well, you’ve just mentioned the two elements that are the yin and the yang of design. The color is Dionysian, and the line is Apollonian. These are the two warring parts of the whole. Designers through the ages have faced the balance between those two polar opposites. Color affects you one way, and line affects you a different way.

On one whole board, I create what I call the “colors of the kingdom.” Whatever show you’re doing, you figure out your color scheme from the set designer. I don’t pick a single color until the set designer has chosen a design, because the set designer creates the kingdom, if you will. The costume designer then populates it. Later, the lighting designer adds illumination. That’s the best way I have found to do it.

I would imagine one of the more challenging shows, at least in terms of color, would have been Nine, which was primarily monochromatic.
LONG: It was indeed all black and white, except for the show within the show, which we did in the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. And everyone wore white for the finale. The film 8½, on which Nine was based, was filmed in black and white, and it was so strongly designed that it seemed that the people were even wearing just black and white. So we embraced that. But black and white is hard, because you still have skin tones. Skin and hair are not black and white. You really don’t design a totally black and white show, but within the range of blacks and grays and whites.

You had a similar challenge from director Walter Bobbie for the current revival of Chicago.
LONG: Yes. When New York City Center began its Encores! concert series, Walter asked me to be its designer. Together we chose black and white, because the series was going to be just staged readings. I said, “I feel the men should wear tuxedos, and the women should be in black gowns or cocktail dresses.” And that’s how we did the first year. Well, it was as much about black and white as it was about removing the telling details to create more of a concert feeling. And concerts have men in tuxedos.

Chicago was in the second year, and we switched things around a bit. The character of Billy Flynn is the only one wearing a tuxedo. Everyone else is wearing deconstructed 1920s clothes. I don’t know whether that’s clear, but that was where I started the design from.

You’ve redesigned those costumes for successive casts, but I understand it’s always been a variation on the original ideas, like using the lace for Roxie’s costume.
LONG: Yes, I’ve designed many different Roxies, and all of those costumes are made out of the same stretch lace. When we did the first national tour of Chicago, Walter encouraged me to redesign everything, and almost everything was reconceived, but the audience let us know that they were disappointed. By then, with its successful ad campaign, Chicago had a brand. There were recognizable looks that audiences missed. So, out of town, I did some fast work. I sent to New York for secondary versions of the original costumes, since we realized that we needed to stay close to the template of the first design.

I imagine that when you have a more monochromatic look, the line becomes much more important in the design.
LONG: Absolutely. It becomes a more Apollonian approach. Having a sexy Dionysian show like Chicago, with its sinuous Fosse choreography, being done in black and white will heighten the frisson that you feel. I also feel the black and white adds to the dark underbelly of cynicism in the script and music of Kander and Ebb—who also brought us the dark Cabaret, which I also have running now in New York.

Yes, you are always very busy. You design at least one or two shows every year on Broadway alone.
LONG I’ve been lucky. I do Broadway, regional productions, operas, and ballets. I’m in Washington now at the Kennedy Center designing a show that is hopefully Broadway bound, and I was in New York yesterday having more fittings for the Metropolitan Opera’s Merry Widow, which opens New Year’s Eve with Renée Fleming. I find it interesting to work in different mediums, but it’s still people wearing clothes.

Your early years in New York were not always lucky, though. Your first Broadway show, Me Jack, You Jill, closed during previews.
LONG: That was the first show I worked on. I assisted Michael Yeargen and Larry King. It was the only time I’ve ever assisted anybody. And I learned a lot, including the fact that I wasn’t cut out to be an assistant. I was a little too peculiar.

During those days, you were also crafting designer dolls to help make ends meet.
LONG: Yes, exactly. It’s still the truth that you need to diversify. It’s good to have some paying hobbies.

I assume that your college friends, like Wendy Wasserstein and Paul Rudnick, also helped you get through the rough times.
LONG: Yes, Wendy and Paul were my best friends. I’ve added—when sitting in class—a few more best friends along the way. I always tell kids, “Look to your left and to your right, because those are the people you’ll be hanging out with for the rest of your days.” Early friendships are vital, because you’re unformed. As Emerson said, “Grapple your friends to you with hoops of steel.” They are the people who help you become who you are.

If you were to choose a handful of shows that design students should know, what would you pick?
LONG: I have a short list that I go back to when I need encouragement. I look at Irene Sharaff’s designs for The King and I and West Side Story. And no one has yet beaten her nightmare trip around the fountain for the film American in Paris. She was also a set designer like me and a scientist, too. She helped develop Technicolor, for heaven sakes. I also look at the designs of Cecil Beaton, who was a set designer as well, particularly My Fair Lady. You should also study Patricia Zipprodt’s designs for Fiddler on the Roof and Willa Kim’s for Sophisticated Ladies, The Will Rogers Follies, and anything she did for the Feld Ballet. You can learn a lot, too, from Madame Karinska’s designs for New York City Ballet. Other extraordinary film designs include Piero Tosi’s for The Leopard and Ann Roth’s for Midnight Cowboy.

I imagine one designer who’s been important to you personally is Ming Cho Lee.
LONG: Ming Cho Lee changed my life. And he continues to change people’s lives. I began classes with him in 1972, during an important presidential election. Ming asked if we had all registered to vote. None of us had. So, he dismissed the class and told us to register. That is a good teacher. He inspired us to be as aware as we could be about the human condition.

I’ve heard that you also try to be aware of actors during rehearsals and take notes on their body language.
LONG: I’m not the only one. I know photographers who invite their models to lunch to see them at ease, to read their body language. When I go to rehearsals, I watch those actors sitting in the corner. What are they doing in the corner? How do they talk to each other? In fittings, people stand up straight, but I want to see what their slouch quotient is, what their real body language is. I’m lucky to live in New York, where I get to ride the subway. I study everybody in the subway cars. It is the best people watching. You can learn so much, and you can make up the best stories, trying to figure out who they are, what they do. It’s endlessly fascinating.

How do you design for actors like Marion Seldes, whose signature color was mauve?
LONG: Oh, the great Marian Seldes. I was privileged to be a friend of hers. I dressed her several times. And I always put her in purple. In 45 Seconds from Broadway, one of the five world premieres I did for Neil Simon, Marian played an eccentric lady. She enters the Café Edison wearing a fur coat that Neil described as one to which she had added more fur to make it longer. I couldn’t figure out what he meant. I wasn’t getting it right. So I gave him a pencil and paper and asked him to draw it. And he did. I took that sketch to a furrier and had it made. The problem was that I was being too tasteful.

John Simon has famously noted your flair for taste and travesty.
LONG: Yes, I love John Simon. He gave me my first review in print. He said, “William Ivey Long’s costumes hover between taste and travesty.” And I felt that I had found my home, because he got it. Not that I aim to hover between taste and travesty. It’s just that’s what happens when I mix things up and it comes out of my brain.

The headdresses for the Hades girls in The Frogs were one notable tasteful travesty.
LONG: Yes, that was a tasteful travesty. I did those with a nod to Versace and a nod to the Parthenon. When they flipped their switches, they became Bic lighters. I loved that.

Another tasteful travesty was Grey Gardens.
LONG: Yes. When I’m doing a revival or a work based on previously owned vehicle, as I cheekily refer to it, I always ask the director if I should be aware of it or if I should make it up new. Mel Brooks’s answer on Producers was, “Make it up.” But on Young Frankenstein, his answer was, “Copy the film.” In fact, I did a little of each on both shows.

Grey Gardens was about channeling Little Edie, of course. And Christine Ebersole and I went together—hand in hand—on that journey. She studied the documentary film on her portable movie player all the time. And I was influenced by it as well. In the musical, you thought you were seeing the actual clothes that Little Edie wore, but I reconceived them. For example, we originally planned for Christine to change clothes on stage, but we didn’t follow through with that in every scene, because of her microphone. We couldn’t do sweaters that went over her head. So I designed wraparound sweaters. It’s too bad that Little Edie wasn’t around to see the show, because she would have loved it.

Does Cinderella hold any extra importance, since that was the show for which you matched Florence Klotz’s shelf of Tony Awards? Or do you not care about that sort of thing?
LONG: It makes me proud, because I thought Florence Klotz has given us some indelible imagery, including A Little Night Music, which Ming Cho Lee described as “Red dress on green set.” If you remember, Desiree wore a red beaded floor-length dress, which stood out against Boris Aronson’s extraordinary set of birch trees surrounded by green. Oh, you should add her designs for Pacific Overtures and Follies to the list of shows to know.

Yes, the Tony for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella made me feel proud and humbled. You’re the first person who has mentioned that to me, though Paul Rudnick does jokingly say awful things about it like, “How many people did you have to kill?” But you want your friends to keep you humble.

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