NEW YORK — Stage costumes are often like those pixilated 3-D paintings: Up close, they don’t make any sense, but from farther away, they develop into a coherent, often beautiful, picture. The mastery in Paul Tazewell’s costumes for the Broadway production of “The Color Purple,” however, is evident in the smallest details — the delicate trim on a church dress, the piping on a platform peekaboo sandal, the beading of a jazz singer’s frock.
“Some of our finest tailors are in the theater,” Tazewell explains modestly, sitting downstairs at the Broadway Theatre.
The show has garnered a fair amount of press due in part to its producer, Oprah Winfrey, and some of the buzz is now starting to circle Tazewell. An Akron, Ohio, native, he designed costumes for “Caroline, or Change” and is on deck next year for “Hamlet” at the Guthrie Theater and “Hot Feet,” a production choreographed by Maurice Hines and featuring music from Earth, Wind and Fire.
Tazewell, 41, began stitching costumes for his high school’s musicals and continued his education at Pratt in New York. But he soon found he preferred the storytelling involved in theater to commercial fashion. “I felt very confined by the fashion business,” he said. “There is something about theater that is a grand blend of everything I’m about.”
For “The Color Purple” — which is based on Alice Walker’s best-selling novel about an oppressed young woman, Celie, and her inspired journey toward independence — Tazewell’s task was to create costumes that spanned the four decades of the characters’ lives from 1909 to 1949. Despite the demands of historical accuracy, he still found room for artistry. “It was important that I get the silhouette right,” he says, referring to the Victorian-style dresses worn by the female cast members, “but I could play with color.” Some of the most impressive pieces are bonnets, worn by three town gossips, that feature pleated silk linings, velvet trim and elaborate bows. Shug Avery, a jazz singer and town firecracker, dons luxurious fur coats and an intricately beaded frock. In all, Tazewell estimates that the wardrobe cost $1 million to produce.
This story first appeared in the December 27, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
When the character of Celie begins to design her own pants toward the end of play, she’s obviously working on a much smaller budget. Women and men alike appreciate Celie’s efforts, even if the high-waisted, full-legged, patterned trousers aren’t exactly flattering. Tazewell just laughs about them, never copping to what an atrocity they are. Perhaps he’s thinking about a licensing deal? As he walks around backstage after a matinee performance, a wardrobe assistant suggests to him, “Yeah, Paul, you should sell a line called Ms. Celie’s Pants.”