Written by Alyssa Jingling
The spectacle of theatre is so compelling for audiences in part because it adds new life to the stories limited to the tiny print of books. From the characters, to the sets, to the body language and movement, and even to the actors’ individual expressions—the entire story that was once confined to a page unfolds in a multi-sensory experience from the seats of a theatre. While the reader is restricted to their own interpretation of a story, the director and designers of a theatrical adaptation add layers of interpretation to the tale that complements that of the viewer’s.
One of the most distinctive qualities that separates literature and theatre is costuming. In a production, costumes can be used to convey a character’s age or the story’s time period, or they can be used to convey the tone of the show or socioeconomic tensions in the setting. In a phrase, costumes are important for the audience’s ability to make connections and assumptions about the characters, setting, and story.
Here are six productions that translated printed literature onto the stage in notable ways through costuming.
1. Gigi (2015 Broadway Revival)
This musical is based on the novella of the same name written in 1944 by French author Colette. It follows an energetic and youthfully defiant teenager, Gigi (Vanessa Hudgens), as she grows up and eventually falls in love with family-friend Gaston (Corey Cott). In the novella, Colette describes Gigi’s looks with such extreme detail that it borderlines on ridiculous. Even though she is only fifteen, the author describes Gigi’s “heron-like legs,” long, flowing hair, and deep blue eyes – typically in the context of her being flushed and embarrassed.Towards the end of the book, because she is restricted in her movement by the “old plaid dress and cotton stockings” she wears, she struggles with “the rise and fall of her bosom under the tight bodice” of the dress. Once the reader moves past the unsettling fact that a 15-year-old girl in early 20th century France was deemed old enough for mature relationships, the descriptions of Gigi really are helpful in seeing Gigi – quite literally – grow into a woman ready to embrace the adult world.
On Broadway, Gigi in Act I wears cute, colorful gowns that are perfect for a young and energetic girl. The bright colors match her personality perfectly, but they do not make the dresses look old, like Gigi has been wearing them for years, and, as with the case of her immaturity, growing out of them. They are not frayed at the hemline or visibly tight anywhere on Gigi’s body. The novel’s images lend a purpose that the “little girl” dresses worn by Hudgens do not: Gigi has to grow up. In the novella, Colette makes it very clear that her dress is too small and she is spilling out of it. This makes the dramatic transition from ill-fitting childish dress to courtesan ballgown much easier to visualize than in the musical, where Gigi went from typical, Madeline-esque dresses to classy, grown-up gowns.
2. Catch Me if You Can
You might recognize this title from the movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio, and yes, both the movie and musical are based off the same book of the same name by Frank Abagnale, Jr. – the book itself based on a true story. As a teen, Frank runs away and ends up writing millions of dollars worth of fraudulent checks. He also impersonates multiple professionals, including a doctor, lawyer, and most notably, a pilot. The story places a huge amount of emphasis on clothing. Frank needs many different costumes to pull off his stunts, and, accordingly, the musical mentions this fact many times, especially in songs “The Pinstripes Are All That They See” and “Someone Else’s Skin.” Surprisingly, however, it is the costumes of the female ensemble members that show more of Frank’s character, rather than his own.
While money plays a large part in Abagnale’s schemes, women are the inspiration behind his multitude of costumes. Soon after Frank runs away from home, he observes the way women look at pilots in their uniforms, and noticed that they were immediately attracted to the pinstriped men. The way he saw it: he’s taken by women, and women are taken by men in uniform. As such, the musical hyper-sexualizes the clothing of the female cast, forcing the audience to watch the show through Frank’s eyes instead of as third-party spectators. In many numbers, there are sexualized nurses, flight attendants, and nondescript dancers. The sexy female costumes present a man’s world, and the man in charge made it clear that he is shameless in his love for the female body.
Of course, when you really think about it, these costumes aren’t all that shocking. Even though we see nurses in hospitals more commonly wearing scrubs than miniskirts, depictions of oversexed fantasy women are common. However, these costumes really say more of the men who create them and believe them to be realistic, similar to how the sexualized costumes of the female cast members speak more to Abagnale’s ridiculous ideas of women than the women themselves.
3. Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812
This musical is based on about 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, highlighting Natasha and Anatole’s love story (and Pierre’s existential crisis). Visually, every aspect of this show is stunning, but the costumes are especially notable because they show both the historically accurate and the modern.
The featured characters of Natasha, Anatole, and Pierre all have accurate costumes for the period, but the ensemble is clothed in modern punk fashion. According to costume designer Paloma Young in an interview by American Theatre, the chorus connects the audience directly to the show, as their “punk rock” costumes “combine extreme teenage joy and misery (Natasha) with deep, deep philosophical depression (Pierre) and military and religious iconography (uniforms, camouflage, bullets, crosses and more crosses).”
This visual combination of the emotional journey of the characters entrenched in the vitality and revolutionary energy of the chorus acts as a temporal bridge between today and 1812. It connects the audience with all aspects of the story, no matter where they sit or where they come from. Further, the ensemble’s punk costumes connect the main characters’ emotional struggles with the similar struggles that today’s young people face. Of course, in War and Peace, none of the characters wore camouflage jogger pants or skinny jeans, but the symbolism described by Young properly justifies this anachronism. This stylistic choice highlights how the costumes of a production can work to complement the experiences of the audience in ways unique from that of the source text.
This iconic Broadway show is based on the poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. Eliot was very consciously a prominent face of modernist literature in the 20th century, and, as with many other Modernists, wrote in conversation with great classic authors like Dante and Shakespeare. Practical Cats strays from Eliot’s more common poetic works because it is light and whimsical, and written for children. However, while Eliot was comfortable with this whimsy for younger audiences, I think it’s fairly safe to say he would not be as comfortable with how the costumes of his cats translated visually onto the Broadway stage.
On stage, the actors are in full fur-suits, with each unique persona representing each unique cat. There is a myriad of symbolism and artistry in each intricate costume. For instance, Old Deuteronomy is gray and raggedy, while the flirtatious friends Demeter and Bombalurina are in tight, sexy, red costumes. However, the sexiness doesn’t stop at the more flirtatious cats – nearly every cast member is in unnecessarily sexual, skin tight bodysuits and furry, thigh-high boots. Even though the costumes allow for great catlike movement across the stage, this sexualization distracts from the actual show because few characters actually need to be sexy. The skin tight fur-suits and coy makeup can be unnerving to the viewer, who’s just trying to watch a show about the everyday struggles of street cats. No one should be made to feel attracted to them.
5. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Based on the fairytale of the same name attributed originally to the French tradition and presented in the collection of Charles Perrault, this musical was adapted to Broadway in 2013, with Laura Osnes starring as Ella and Victoria Clark as the Fairy Godmother. In the fairytale, the reader understands that they are reading a story containing magic. Through the world he built, Perrault makes it easy for the reader to suspend their disbelief. Yes, a crazy old lady can be a fairy godmother, and yes, she can change a pumpkin to a carriage, and she can change Ella’s raggedy old dress into a stunning ball gown. Because magic is already established as a norm in fairy tales, the reader can easily picture these transformations. Suspending disbelief onstage, however, is harder because the audience still knows that they’re watching something in real life, in real-time.
Thanks to costume designer William Ivey Long, the onstage costume transformations in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella look smooth, exciting, and magical. The costumes represent the magic used in the fairytale through multiple onstage quick changes. These changes happen through movement (oftentimes twirling), and the clothes transform, as if magically, in front of the audience. Unlike a movie, where the production team could cut together takes or CGI a magical transformation, transformations onstage like those in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella have to be more inventive and playful in order for the audience to cooperate in the suspension of disbelief. By making them look seamless, the audience is not pulled out of the story to remember that they’re still sitting in a theater in the real world, where magic is fictional.
6. Something Rotten!
This show is not based on any one of Shakespeare’s shows despite the Hamlet reference in the title, but is more of a satirical and fictionalized take on Shakespeare’s life and success. I am thoroughly convinced that The Bard would love it. While at first glance the costumes in Something Rotten! might look fitting for the Renaissance, take a longer look and you’ll see they’re simply too cartoonish to be historically accurate. Instead, they’re just historically suggestive, similar to how a mass-produced Renaissance costume might look.
The character of Shakespeare wears cool leather and has his shirt perpetually unbuttoned, showing that he’s famous and well-loved by throngs of fans – not unlike a Renaissance-era boyband heartthrob. Meanwhile, his up-and-coming contemporary Nick Bottom and his posse wear bright, clownish colors to show that they’re trying to be noticed, but they’re just not that cool. These costumes mimic the subtle way Shakespeare would poke fun at himself and his acting company in his shows. Whenever he wrote a play within a play (as he often liked to do), the players are always a bit ridiculous. Think of the Players in Hamlet: while they were adequate performers, they were overly dramatic and unruly forcing Hamlet to direct them. The show manages to poke fun at both the elite top (Shakespeare), and the ridiculous bottom (well, Bottom).