Lauren Gaston is the Costume Designer for My Fair Lady.
Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to design in Europe, Asia and North and South America. These experiences have come with varying degrees of resources, distinct cultural expectations and various methods of storytelling.
Though we think and act globally this day and age, artistic associations and cultural code varies country to country. For instance, the color white means something entirely different in Europe than it does in India—a symbol of purity versus funereal. While it is not possible to entirely divorce ourselves from the artistic associations inherent to our culture, it is my belief that breaking with convention (however slight) is essential to creativity—taking a known form and approaching it in an entirely new way. The American Musical is ripe for this sort of transformation (Thanks Hamilton!).
In my experience, a parallel exists between the strict creative process of Cantonese Opera and the manner in which Broadway productions are remounted as the gold standard for subsequent productions. This observation, learned globally, was shattered locally with Gulfshore Playhouse’s production of My Fair Lady.
Working on a Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong recently, my expectations of the creative process and cultural associations were turned on their head. As strict as ballet and highly acrobatic, Cantonese Opera performers train from an early age to perfect the movement and voice type of one character. The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Art’s production of The Monkey King and the Skeleton Demons was no different.
Equally specific, the costumes in Cantonese opera represent an amalgam of different time periods onstage all at once! This phenomenon has nothing to do with the year in which the opera is set but the year in which the character was written and codified in Cantonese Opera history. Production to production, company to company, the silhouette, embroidered motifs, color and even HOW the costumes are worn on the body for each character remains very much the same. In Cantonese Opera there are no closures of any kind—no snaps, Velcro, buttons, zippers. Every costume is tied to the body in up to 5 or more layers; even the wigs are tied to the head.
Can you imagine if we approached the American musical in this way? What if the characters of Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins wore the exact same costume in every production since the moment they were penned? Really, it’s not that difficult to imagine. For instance, what colors come to mind when you think of My Fair Lady? Perhaps you see Audrey Hepburn, clad in white lace and iced with black and white bows. How about other iconic characters? What imagery comes to mind when you think of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz? Maria from West Side Story? Sandy from Grease?
Stepping away from iconic references, traditional frameworks or how a production has been done on Broadway can be difficult, which is why I was delighted to hear Kristen Coury’s vision of a 10 person, 2 piano version of My Fair Lady, which promised immediacy but also intimacy. Still no small feat for the cast, crew and creative team, I was thrilled to design a classic musical taken on in a new light.
Kristen and I decided definitive changes per character were integral to the story telling, especially for Eliza’s journey! Due to the demand of characters playing multiple, distinct roles, Kristen and I decided to land the production in 1912, for purposes of the silhouette lending itself more easily to quick changes. While no breeze to work in without practice, the tabards, over-dresses and under-dresses seen in the Edwardian period (especially in evening wear) leant themselves nicely to the idea of partial changes per character. For instance, the female performers wore black skirts as the maids and Mrs. Pearce that doubled as the under-skirts for Ascot and the Embassy Ball scenes. Being able to repeat select pieces without fully changing each time allowed the choreography backstage to be simplified ever so slightly. Of course, always easier said than done!
Paramount to the design was ability for changes, movement, the distinction between upper and lower class and Eliza’s seminal transformation from flower girl to lady. For the upper class looks, I embraced the Eastern influences seen in art and fashion at this time. The influence that Japanese art made on Impressionist painters also found it’s way into virtually every garment of the Edwardian period, in this case Eliza’s Embassy Ball gown and those of the guests!
To achieve the design, the GP costume team and I contracted out select dresses to be made specifically for this production, rented from five different costume houses across the country, and thrifted select pieces here in Naples! Add several hundred hours of fittings, alterations and rigging, and we had ourselves a show!
Whether in Naples, Florida or Wan Chai, Hong Kong, the costume design process involves reading, researching, collaborating, sourcing, shopping, problem solving but also drawing and dreaming. Regardless of cultural expectation, there’s is no right or wrong way to tell a story, only choices, hard work and the limit of one’s imagination. I was thrilled to be a part of this production of My Fair Lady, a fresh take on an old favorite!