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A Conversation with Costume Designer William Ivey Long

Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist Marcos Nájera speaks with William Ivey Long, Costume Designer for Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Marcos: William, what is your job?

William Ivey Long: My job as a costume designer is quite simply to help someone become someone else. Because that is what actors are doing. Actors are becoming someone else. They aren't playing themselves, unless it’s a reality television program (laughs). They are playing a character, a scripted character who has an arc of an experience. And that is what a play is. It’s a story that has a beginning, middle and end. And through the time it takes to tell the story, my job is both to help them become somebody else and to help them show physically in three dimensions that change.

And how do tangible items like fabric, thread and even fantastic things like sequins—coupled with clothing and costume—transform people onstage?

Part of the storytelling, in Cinderella for instance, you can tell she is living the life of a servant in the 16th century, France because of her clothing. It’s dirty. There are comments, many comments in the script that “Oh, how do you know she is poor? Well, look at her clothes!” Her whole name, Cinder-Ella, was created by Charles Perrault who wrote the original story to show that she spent her life working in the chimneys, in the cinders, re-starting the fires that heated the house. That charcoal smudge can get on your skin, on your clothes. We deal with the effects of her work. So you see the dirt that we theatrically rub into her clothes. It’s paint that we rub into her clothes. Because when you see her you have to really feel that she is downtrodden. And her stepsisters are being treated like princesses. 

My job is to who? what? why? when? how? You have to figure out that there is a period, we have sort of a fantasy 16th century period. The 1580s, sort of the court of Catherine de Medici, [an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559], is where we set it—loosely. And then you can see hierarchically in the home the mother is dressed in fine clothes and the step-sisters are dressed in fine clothes. But then Cinderella is totally dressed in rags. So that’s what fabrics can do. 

On a more nuanced, sophisticated level, once you’ve seen the silhouette that is happening, and if it reminds you of Shakespeare's time shall we say, you can see that the mother and the sisters have a fancier silhouette—they are wearing little hoop skirts which are called “Farthingales.”

What a wonderful word, ‘Farthingale!”

Farthingale! That’s a 16th century hoop skirt. It might have something to do with a brass farthing, which is like a penny [1 cent] in English history.

When you say the word ‘silhouette,’ what do you mean by that?

A silhouette is what you see if you put someone behind a curtain or a sheet and you shine a light on them [from behind], the shadow they cast is their silhouette. It’s the outline of their shape. Their actual body and the clothes they’re wearing.

You can see from the silhouette and you can hear in the script the stepmother saying that they are “aspiring to a higher social plateau.” So there's a sense of aspiration. So I need to show you that this family is aspiring. So, subtly, I have made their shopping dresses—which are the first you see—not out of velvet, but out of corduroy.

Oh wow, that IS subtle!

And it’s wide-whale corduroy, so you can actually see it’s corduroy. It’s poor-man’s velvet! 

So they are faking it!

They’re faking it, with a fabric that ordinary people wear. It’s a way to relate to this aspiration. They are not there yet. They’re wannabees!

Now, I’m going to give you another irony. Corduroy is a wannabe velvet. But it is called “corde du roi” meaning fabric/chords of the king. So, I’m not sure if it’s always had an ironic send-up in its name. 

What about Cinderella’s fabric?

It’s called Linsey-woolsey. She is wearing home-spun wool. Home-woven wool. Like Harris Tweed, which began, before it became a fancy men’s fabric was woven in home looms in Scotland. It still is. But back in the day it was just worn by simple people. And it was hand-woven from their sheep, and the colors were sheep colors. And people are still doing it up in Scotland, but now it costs a fortune because it’s done by hand. But back in the day, simple people wore those things in natural colors.   

When you look at the silhouette shapes of all of the characters in this story, it seems – like the less power or money a character has – like Cinderella at the beginning of the show the more real human-shaped the silhouette is and the less fabric layers the costume has. And the more money or power a character has – the more fabric and bulkier the costume silhouette. Is that part of the design goal?

That’s right. Correct. And the imagery of the forest has been really close to all of the clothing because it takes place in a forest. The kingdom is a forest kingdom. So there’s a lot of moth and butterfly imagery in ball gowns for instance.  

That’s right. And in [the character of] Sebastian, who is sort of the evil counselor, the lord protector, I created his coat and based the [costume] on a black crow with the wings tucked in.  So his silhouette has sort of a bird of prey, a crow look. 

Are there actual black feathers?

Yes, they are big black coque feathers, pronounced “coke.” They are rooster feathers! Roosters, in French, are coques.

What role do vision boards, images and pictures play in your design process?

Whenever you do an imaginary kingdom, it gives you sort of freedom. 

But yet also quite strict responsibilities. In other words, you have to set up the rules and you have to set up the design guidelines. Because remember there is no sky-is-the-limit, is it going to be on Mars? Is it going to be on the farmyard or is it going to be in the forest? The sky is the limit if it can be all of those things, but you need to zoom it down. Or zoom in on what it is you're trying to say. So we are trying to say that it is all in a forest, the flora and fauna, and it is all based on nature, these images. Of course if you think of Cinderella's character she starts as a moth and turns into a butterfly.

Where do you go to get your pictures for inspiration? Are they from magazines or online searches? Where do they come from?

All of the above. And because I am from an older generation, I collect books and I have used every job assignment to buy at least a dozen books! But then we have something called the Internet. And the design process with the director and the set designer and myself is that we use something that the kids all use called ‘Dropbox.’ Where you can find things online, you save them and you can select them, you know they come out and move over to another side of the screen and then you can drop them … I'm not very good at this at all, I’ve just seen it happen. [My assistants] do it for me! But anyway, we would share imagery and they would send me literally hundreds, several hundred, images of from what they are looking at. This is the set designer and director. And then I would share my imagery and we would put them all into a generally shared ‘Dropbox.’

We started about a year and a half to two years ago before we opened doing this design process. I would say a year and a half. And our director took some trips, some vacations and he likes to hike. And he would go on vacations and he would take pictures on his phone of roots. He would be in Wyoming or someplace marching through [nature], and he’d see some tree. It had fallen over and it was looking like a tree monster and he would send the set designer and me that image! And it was very helpful, sending us this image from his phone when he was out hiking. Then also we will put it up next to all the different images. We had boards on the wall. See, I just don’t leave it online. I print them out. I have something that I, I don't know if other people do it, but I certainly do it. I go to a hardware store and I buy insulation boards that are 4’ x 8’. They are either pink or blue depending on how thick of an insulation you want.

Like drywall?

No, styrofoam. Like the thin sort of foam and they make them in pink or blue. And they are very light and I get white acrylic wall paint, you know ceiling paint and I paint them white so they disappear. And then I pin all the pictures on one side. And I can use both sides. And [my design studio] is big so I can get 25 or 26 of these around the room. So I actually make whole boards of these hundreds of 8 x 10 images.

Why is this an important part of the process?

It’s very important. Another natural term, “osmosis.” I think if you are surrounded actually by imagery that your eyes sort of look at day after day and you sort of wander through them with your eyes, it seeps inside. And so you are influenced by them through osmosis. 

So you are surrounded by these fantastic pictures you’ve found online of roots, plants and forest animals, pictures from the director’s hikes out in nature, and according to one video I watched online—you even have pictures of Taylor Swift! What does Taylor Swift have to do with your design process? (Laughs)

Isn’t that hilarious? (laughs) They found it online and sent it to me. In fact, that was a very important first image because the director saw Taylor Swift in a big, pink, poofy ball gown in a forest and there were crystal chandeliers hanging from the boughs. And there were a lot of leaves on the bottom so there she was rustling the leaves. But there she was in a very pink sort of ruched-up ruffles of net, pink tulle, big ball gown. And that was very helpful for us figuring out what our land would look like, what our houses and palaces would look like. 

So do you draw inspiration for your design from your daily life?

Oh sure. I am lucky in New York. I take the subway and on Canal Street where I live, all the subways stop. So I’ve got six subway lines that are within a block or two blocks from me. It’s very luxurious. So I go everywhere on the subways. And they are the best design resource. Because you are thinking about your projects and you're dreaming and you're standing there holding onto something, and your eyes start wandering and you are looking at everybody and it is just endlessly fascinating and I love it. I often miss my stop because I'm so fascinated by looking at people and what they're wearing and who are they and what's their story? I do it all the time. I'm just fascinated. You cannot be disinterested on the subway because the craziest mash-up of people are just sort of thrown together by happenstance and they change partners—it’s like musical chairs. They get on, they get off. It’s like a metaphor for life, but it's really true. If you are aware of design and you're aware of people, there it is right in front of you.

And now the design question everyone asks you. How do you create those magical costume transformations with the Fairy Godmother and when Cinderella goes from a rag dress to a spectacular ball gown in just a few seconds onstage?

(Laughing) And my official and personal answer is that it is magic! (Laughing) I don't give you any help on that. But I do say the following. I wanted the magic to be created by the actors themselves. So all of these transformations are done by the person wearing the garment. And I think it’s really important that it’s not done with smoke and mirrors and that the lights don’t turn off. It’s all done right in front of you. Because that is the story: magic is all around you.

I even tell the actors when they are coming in and we are going to rehearse how this goes and we are going to do it 20 times. I tell them “If it doesn't completely work the first time onstage don't freak out. Just finish the transformation under your control and the audience will be quite intrigued if they have seen a hint of how it's done.” 

I have been a firm believer in magic since I was a kid so I am with you! I noticed that the prince has a crown that goes all around his head, but the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella don’t. Their crowns look more flat. Why is that?

Yes, the prince is a real prince. And he is sort of born with his crown. His crown doesn't really leave his head, except at the first of the balls when he is wearing a mask and he doesn't want people to know he's a prince. But every other time you see him in the full crown, all the way around. So we use the crown carefully so when he doesn't have it, it’s because he is trying to pretend and he's trying to fit in so he can judge the different choices for a wife, you see, when he's dancing with them. And then the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, the main reason I chose tiaras—and they are slightly curved, they aren’t just flat, they are really half-tiaras. The reason is they are underneath—I will tell you this, they are flat on their heads. Like Cinderella is wearing her kerchief, you know, because she is keeping her hair from getting too sooty and the Fairy Godmother is wearing her hooded cape in the forest. So when they transform the hooded cape falls away and disappears and the kerchief falls away and disappears. And literally out pops the tiara and it changes her silhouette.

Oh! So the tiaras are like pop-up books!  That is so cool.

Yup, see? Because I wanted to change the silhouette of the smooth hair because you have just seen her in a scarf. But think about it, you’ve just seen her wearing a scarf, you see the shape of the head. There are no bumps in it. And then, when it falls away and disappears, whoops, look! There's the tiara! And if there were a crown, you would see it under the scarf. But I want it to be like a pop-up book. It would give away the surprise.

And it's very, very low-tech. All of the magic is low-tech. Because I created it with my brilliant, brilliant costume shop. Everything is a group effort. Of course you know that. And I have several shops I work with all the time for like 30 years. And there are two. One shop worked with me to create the Fairy Godmother transformation and then another one worked with me to create all of Cinderella's. And so it is a group effort.

I drew diagrams and pictures. I sleep with a yellow legal pad next to my bed. And a lot of times I wake up with a thought and then draw it and go back to sleep. I think a lot of people do that. Most people do that actually. It's just a black pencil because then I don't have to find the cap. It’s just pencil. Just draw and then go back to sleep. And so I would collect these thoughts and pencil sketches and then take them to the shop.

And then a lot of times I would make on mannequins, little quarter-inch scale fashion dolls. They are little dress dummies. And I work out a lot of transformations on these maquettes. Again, a French word, maquette. Which became “mock-up!” It’s a little version. I call them ‘my dolls.’ It’s easier.

So what do we get from all this? You make your own magic. I know it sounds dopey, but I believe it!

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