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"Black Tie" Required

Date: Feb 03, 2011


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When you think of costume designing, you might think of someone sketching clothes or sitting at a sewing machine, not shopping at Brooks Brothers. But that’s just where designer Jess Goldstein stopped when he was gathering pieces for A.R. Gurney’s Black Tie.

A world premiere comedy now running at 59E59, Black Tie follows Curtis (Gregg Edelman), a father-of-the-groom who ruffles feathers by choosing to wear his dead father's tuxedo to his son's wedding.

Curtis' father is also a character in the play, so Goldstein had to find matching tuxedos for the actors.  He went to Brooks Brothers because the store carries a timeless-looking line of formal wear. “I’ve always assumed that the play is somewhat autobiographical about [Gurney] and his father,” the designer explains. “[Gurney] wanted the tuxedos to have a very classic look.”

Whether working on a contemporary or period play, Goldstein never starts designing until he's familiar with a script. He also gets input from the actor, the director, and (when possible) the playwright. One technique, for instance, is asking the actors where a character might shop.

For a modern show like Black Tie, Goldstein often shops for costumes rather than having them made. This is partly because of budget restrictions, but also because the clothes will look more realistic. “Obviously, they should look like clothes that were just bought from a store, so the best way to do that is to just buy them from a store,” he says. “If you have a lot of trouble finding an item, I think it tells you that maybe [the character] wouldn’t wear that.”

Once he starts shopping and fitting the actors, he develops a sense of the show's palette, and he rules out certain choices because they don't align with what the other actors are wearing. For example, he had to find two outfits for Curtis' wife, since she changes her mind about what to wear to the wedding, and they both had to support Curtis' own wardrobe choices. “The trick was finding something that could [either] go or not go with the tuxedo because the audience doesn’t know and Curtis doesn’t know until the end of the play if he’s going to wear the tuxedo or not,” Goldstein says.

Once he has bought clothes, Goldstein often has to tailor them to create the best look for the actor. He found a dress that he liked for Curtis' daughter Elsie, and because the actress Elvy Yost is very tall, he added colored tulle to the bottom to lengthen the piece and liven it up.

Working on this play, in which characters spend so much time dressing and discussing clothes, has reconfirmed some of Goldstein's own ideas about what makes costumes look. “What’s lovely about that formalwear on those men is that everyone looks so good in it," he says. "It’s such a flattering look, and I remember the first dress rehearsal, everybody commented on both men how handsome they looked. After all these years, it still works.”


Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci