Dressing Them Up - Iconic Costumes of Broadway Musicals

Dressing Them Up - Iconic Costumes of Broadway Musicals

Most Broadway musicals have so many exciting things going for them: music, drama, great performers, inspired direction and choreography, great marketing campaigns. Then there is the physical production itself: the monumental sets, the breathtaking lighting and of course, the brilliantly designed costumes that bring the characters to life. Over the years, there have been some particularly memorable costumes, and some of these creations have moved on to iconic status. Today’s blog looks at some of the most iconic of all Broadway costumes, the fashion creations that have instantly intrigued and excited us through their perfection.


Aurora’s “Where You Are” Suit – Kiss of the Spider Woman

Florence Klotz, in designing the Kander and Ebb musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, kept a Latin flavor throughout the designs of the screen persona Aurora’s (a.k.a. The Spider Woman) costumes. With Chita Rivera in the role, the designs were all the more fittingly effective. The most-memorable came in the song “Where You Are” where Klotz donned the dancing diva in a man’s white suit with tales, and fixed a white fedora atop her lovely head. The effect was startling. When Rivera stepped out on the stage smoking a cigarette, it instantly became a classic moment in musical theatre history.  


Mrs. Lovett’s Grisly Shoppe Dress – Sweeney Todd

Not many character images are quite as memorable as Fran Lee’s concoction for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Though the pie shoppe dress we first meet her in is nothing special (tattered and worn), the inspired choice of putting her in hair in two curly ringlets atop her head made the cannibalistic pie maker stand out. What works so wonderfully here is that the hairdo looks almost childlike and cute, in juxtaposition with her crafty and sinister ways.    

Dolly Levi’s Harmonia Garden’s Dress – Hello, Dolly!

When a gal like Dolly Gallagher Levi, known for her larger-than-life personality and for being beloved to all she has touched, returns to her favorite haunt after years of mourning, she needs one hell of a dress to wear as she descends the restaurant’s grand staircase. Designer Freddy Wittop was up to the challenge, designing a startling, floor-length, cherry red affair with spangles to spare. She was crowned with a plumed headdress that encircled her head in a corona of crimson. When anyone thinks of Hello, Dolly!, this image of Carol Channing in this dress is the first thing that comes to mind.

The Phantom’s Haunting Mask and Cape – The Phantom of the Opera

All we have to do is see that alabaster white half-mask and we know what musical we are talking about. Pair that with a stylish period tuxedo and an elegant cape, and of course we are in the world of The Phantom of the Opera. Maria Bjornson went against the grain, creating a monster who was both elegant and mysterious, making the reveal of his horrible disfiguration all the more gasp-worthy when placing it against such a sumptuous costume.

Fanny Brice’s Maternity/Wedding Gown – Funny Girl

Sometimes a costume just needs to be funny, and Irene Sharaff’s imagining of Fanny Brice’s wedding gown for “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” was one such occasion. It was a lovely dress, but the adding of a little padding to make the bride look VERY pregnant is what made the costume look iconic. When Streisand took the stage, the audience roared, initially thanks to a perfect costume and eventually thanks to Streisand’s indelible performance.

Anna Leanowens’ “Shall We Dance” Gown – The King and I

Actress Gertrude Lawrence was unknowingly very sick with cancer while she was originating the role of Anna Leanowens in The King and I. So in love with her “Shall We Dance” dress was she that Lawrence requested she be buried in it upon her death, which occurred while the show was still playing on Broadway. Her final wish honored, Lawrence was interred in the lush, champagne-colored gown designed by Irene Sharaff. 

Grizabella’s Tattered Fur – Cats

Let’s face it, all of the costumes for the original Broadway production of Cats are pretty iconic. From the sleekness of the painted body suits by John Napier, to the carefully designed feline make-up by Candace Carell, this band of junkyard pusses is naturally the most-memorable part of the musical. It was, however, in Grizabella the Faded Glamour Cat, that Napier did his finest work, using a tattered fur coat to evoke this kitty’s look of faded-glory and age. Carell’s makeup deepened the lines and also gave Grizabella a visage of age, sadness and weariness.     

Carla’s Lacey, Form-Fitting Body Suit – Nine

William Ivey Long’s costumes are always elegant with just a touch of something unique. His most delicious costume came in the original Broadway production of Nine when, in clothing the mistress Carla, he put Anita Morris in a black lace see-through body suit, with patches of lace just barely covering the “naughty” regions. Up against Morris’s creamy white skin and fiery red hair, the outfit was stunning and sexy, almost growing out of her own curvaceous beauty. Carla’s “Call from the Vatican” was easily the most memorable moment from the original production, in part thanks to William Ivey Long’s inspired choice to make lingerie so exquisitely wearable as street wear.    

Nellie Forbush’s “Honey Bun” Sailor Suit – South Pacific

Not exactly earthshaking, but iconic nonetheless, is the sailor suit and cap donned by Nellie Forbush to sing “Honey Bun” in the musical South Pacific. Oversized, droopy and accessorized with overly-long cravat, the design by Motley is one of the first iconic costumes of Broadway musical fame.     

Cassie’s Dance Leotard – A Chorus Line

No celebration of costume designs is complete without Theoni V. Aldredge on the list. Funny that her most iconic costume may well-be her simplest. In the musical A Chorus Line, she puts dancer Cassie in a deep red leotard and dance skirt, making her pop out for her big number “The Music and the Mirror.” The image of Donna McKechnie dancing in front of said mirror in that leotard is engrained in our minds forever. Simple, but effective.

Eva Peron’s Balcony Gown – Evita

Who wouldn’t want to “Christian Dior” Patti LuPone, especially in a production of Evita?  Timothy O’Brien and Tazeena Firth had the honor for the original Broadway production, fashioning one of the most luxurious gowns ever to grace Broadway for her big moment singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” The gown, which was formfitting in the bodice and flared dramatically to the ground, was white with silver beading. It was designed in the classy, ornate style of many of the real-life Eva Peron’s gowns. 

Little Edie’s Revolutionary Costume for Today – Grey Gardens

The costume itself is really a recreation of the real-life Little Edie Beale’s unconventional style which was made iconic through the documentary film Grey Gardens. In the musical Grey Gardens, designer William Ivey Long recreated that insane combination of a jersey knit cinched with a drapery cord, shorts worn under a skirt, a Persian shawl made into a wimple-like headdress and adorned with a pin. It’s madness and it perfectly captured the eccentricities that led to Beale’s reclusiveness. 

Emcee - Cabaret

As far as male costumes go (there aren’t many on this list), Patricia Zipprodt’s demonic Emcee from the original Broadway production of Cabaret is probably the most iconic of them all. Putting the impish Joel Grey in a shabby, but tailored tuxedo, slicking back his hair, and covering his face in makeup that made him look like a clown doll that has come to life, made him both welcoming and intimidating. “Wilkommen” and “Bienevue” he cries, but there is something so off-kilter about him that we just don’t trust him. We know he personifies something salacious and sinful, but we relent and join him anyway. This is what a great costume can do. It not only brings the character to life, but it inspires a feeling or reaction from the audience.  

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