Costume designer Paul Tazewell talks about building characters with fabric

Paul Tazwell Raunak Kapoor.

A musical theater costume designer for nearly thirty years, Paul Tazewell, recently nominated for an Oscar for his work on West Side Story, understands how tissue moves. From Ariana DeBose’s swirly yellow swing dress in West Side Storywith flying white coats in hamiltonTazewell has a personal and sensual meaning for clothes intended to be danced. In Spielberg West Side Story, Anita’s now-famous dress as she sings “America,” with its unreal hue of lemon yellow, steals the show. Although inspired by naturalistic photographs from the 1950s, many of the film’s costumes seem to spring from a dream. It’s all very Spielberg, with the director’s knack for shining and modernizing classic Americana and combining gritty period detail with sunny nostalgia. As Anita and her pals dance down the West Side in “America,” tearing up the sidewalk in their crimson petticoats, the film is like a tribute to the genre of American musical theater itself.

Tazewell straddles a space between fantasy, realism and practicality in her costumes for the film. He spoke with Observer about how he delves into a character’s psyche when designing: imagining the intimate thought that goes into how a character would choose clothes: how the colors and shapes that attract them and what ‘they find flattering say something about them and tap into how they see themselves. For the character of Anita in West Side Story, Tazewell thought not only about what she would wear but, as a seamstress herself, what she would sit in front of a sewing machine and create – diving into Anita’s head as she chose the fabric and fantasized about dazzling a gym full of spectators. Tazewell himself learned to sew at a young age and he drew on his personal experience of making clothes for himself and friends in his designs for Anita. This intimate reflection on clothes, he told the Observer, stemmed from a very real place inside of him. He wanted it to ring true for the audience watching the film.

Make her Broadway debut designing costumes for George C. Wolfe’s original 1996 production Bring ‘Da Noise, bring ‘Da FunkTazewell’s fame grows through his work on Lin-Manuel Miranda In the heights after that hamilton, for which he won a Tony Award. His other Broadway credits include MJ: The Musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of Temptations, The purple colorand Caroline, or change. Recently, in his film and television work, he has designed costumes for Harriet and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksas well as Disney’s filmed production of hamilton.

In an unusual move for Steven Spielberg, who mostly uses the same designers for his films over and over again, Tazewell was sought out specifically for West Side Story due to his work on hamilton. Spielberg told Tazewell he wanted a naturalistic look for his film. He wanted the film to feel like New York in 1957, when the original Broadway production of the musical was staged. As a result, Tazewell spent a lot of time looking at photographs of New York from this period, including Bruce Davidson’s photos of Caucasian gangs in New York and Gordon Parks’ 1950s photos of people of color in the city.

Drawing inspiration from vintage photography, Tazewell described to Observer developing a color palette for the film that was grounded in realism but spoke to the characters’ feelings, backgrounds and fantasies. The Sharks and Jets, the warring gangs of the musical, have what Tazewell described as “team colors.” The Jets are decked out in blues and grays, blending into the concrete, steel and asphalt of the city itself. Their world is cold toned and their playground is a rubble construction site. Their clothes are meant to represent people who are not interested in trying hard. They don’t have to try to fit in. They’ve been told all their lives that they are what normal looks like. As whites, they are already established in the neighborhood and are only interested in the conservation of their territory.

Puerto Rican sharks, on the other hand, have a brighter and more ambitious palette. They exist in a world of warmer colors, reflecting the tropical island they come from. They have goals and dreams, and unlike the Jets, they have jobs and are more concerned with their looks.

“The Sharks come from a more formal background where the Catholic Church and family are very important to them,” Tazewell told the Observer. “I drew on my own experience with self-representation and how you dress to look respectable – that was more of a focus for the Sharks as an ambitious community.”

Tazewell sees his politics manifest in these designs in the way he honors the various groups represented. Through his costumes, he wants to tell the story not only of a particular character, but of his entire community, “marrying his personality with what his life experience has been”. It is concerned with the fashion choices a character would make based on who they are, where they come from, and how they wish to be seen.

Tazewell’s psychoanalytical approach to costuming, his curiosity for culture and character, and his willingness to bring personal experience into his designs, reveal an artist working from a place of creative abundance. He is the first black man to be nominated for the Oscar for best costume. Tazewell gave the world the unforgettable image of Anita in her yellow dress descending on Manhattan like a molten sun. His status as an Oscar favorite seems richly deserved.

Costume Designer Paul Tazewell Talks Character Creation Through Fabric and Color

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