Costume Design: William Ivey Long

On a recent visit to Charlotte, North Carolina, I popped into the eclectic Mint Museum.  An exhibit featuring the creative process and work of costume designer William Ivey Long opened the day before.  The exhibition is incredibly inspiring for anyone interested in the arts and the creative process.

William Ivey Long, a native of North Carolina, grew up in a theatrical family.  His early interest in historical costume design led him to attend the Yale School of Drama where he majored in Set Design.  Costume design was not an offered major at the time.  Upon graduation he worked as an apprentice to fashion designer Charles James until James’ passing.   After years establishing himself on Broadway he won his first Tony Award in 1982 for Nine.   In addition to Broadway, Long has worked in opera, dance, television, film, concerts and even for Siegfried & Roy.  Today, Long is highly regarded as one of the preeminent costume designers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Costume for Nine worn by actress Anita Morris

Upon entering the exhibit you are transported to Long’s New York workroom where  historical research, color palette creation, fabric selections, inspiration boards, renderings and quick sketches are displayed.  As you walk through the rest of the exhibit costumes from various live plays and taped features are displayed.

More than just fashioning a wardrobe for a character the designer helps evolve that character through clothing and accessories and I find that part of the job fascinating.  Annie Carlano describes the costume designer as one “Re-creating historic and contemporary clothing, inventing imaginary fantasy dress, and making costumes that serve the narrative of a theatrical production or performance are what costume designers do. They give life to characters, beyond spoken words, providing visual clues that convey character, station in life, and personality.  To do so with authenticity, costume designers must have impeccable research skills; understanding of pattern making, cut, construction techniques, and fabrics; and knowledge of how these elements are revealed onstage under set lighting.  Costumes have a hard life; they require being made to withstand the stress of long wear, hot lights, dance movements, refitting, and alterations.”

Here are a few photos I took at the exhibit and a link to the catalog from the exhibit is here in case you’re interested in reading more.

Costumes from the play The Lost Colony featuring Queen Elizabeth are on display along with sketches and fabric swatches.  The Queen’s costume is based on an actual dress she wore in the Hardwick Portrait painted between 1592-1599.



The Hardwick Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, 1592-1599
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Swatches and sketches for The Lost Colony

Long always begins the first costume renderings in watercolor. The inspiration boards are fantastic.  The one below is for a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella from 2012.

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Sketches and fabric swatches from Cinderella

Another production showcased is Little Dancer about artist Edgar Degas and the ballet dancers he loved to paint.

Edgar Degas costume from Little Dancer

Long created the ballet costumes using the painterly palette of Degas’ oeuvre.   Click here for a video of the Little Dancer featuring the ballet costume on the far right up close and in motion.  The bronze color of the costume evokes the famous Degas bronze sculpture which the performer mimics in the final scene.

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Edgar Degas’ sculpture of the “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  The original model is from 1878-81, this model was cast after 1921.  Bronze, gauze, and satin.


A highlight of the exhibit are the costumes from the Grease Live production that aired last year.  I remember watching in wonder as Marty sang her solo at the sleepover and proceeded to go thru three costume changes as if by magic.   Click here for a youtube video of the scene.  Here are the actual costumes from the scene worn by Keke Palmer.  Palmer had on all of the pieces at one time as the scene plays out she removes a layer and then another layer.  Long’s imagination for illusion is much appreciated.


Grease color palettes

Click here for a link to the exhibit that runs through June of 2018.

William Ivey Long