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Wardrobe jokes in Important Hats of the Twentieth Century
You can almost capture the spirit of Important Hats of the Twentieth Century with a single image. A little past the halfway point of Nick Jones's new comedy, which Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting at City Center's Stage II, we see a man bent over a worktable, wearing a welder's mask and a heavy leather apron. But while he's soldering steel – and sparks do indeed fly around the set – he keeps a flamboyantly bright handkerchief in his apron pocket. Even metallurgy makes room for beauty.
Like the rest of the play, this pop of color is wonderfully absurd. It also represents an act of rebellion. The welder, you see, is Sam Greevy, a renowned fashion designer of the interwar years who has been horrified to see a competitor named Paul Roms wow the industry by introducing comfortable-yet-bland items like sweatshirts and sneakers. Determined to fight back, Greevy sends spies to Roms's shop, and they report that he's making a metal hat of some kind. So Greevy decides to make a metal hat first. But by God, it'll be a stylish hat, not just a sop to Americans who prize comfort over elegance. That kerchief in the apron is a sign of his sartorial rebellion.
Only what Sam doesn't know is that the metal hat is actually a time machine that Paul has been using to travel to the future – 1998, to be exact – and learn what people are wearing. He steals clothes from a teenage boy, takes them back to his own time, and transforms them into fashion revolutions.
Obviously, the costumes in this production are crucial. Every piece tells us something about the time period, the characters, and Paul and Sam's battle for dominance. To some extent, everyone in the company has helped make the clothing work – it was the actor Carson Elrod, who plays Sam, who suggested the pocket square in the apron – but it's up to costume designer Jennifer Moeller to make the show cohere.
For instance, she opted to have all the interwar characters look period appropriate at the start of the show, before tracksuits arrive from the future. "Obviously it goes to wackadoodle places, but in the very beginning, it was important for it to feel kind of real," she says. "That way there was a contrast between the way people looked and some of the language."
And the language is hard to ignore. The period characters make rapid-fire, no-nonsense declarations, like they're in an exceptionally weird film noir. When a reporter gets pressured to relax his wardrobe, for instance, he snaps, "I'll untuck my shirt in hell!" Comebacks like these are even better because he's wearing such a natty suit.
Then there's the question of how a designer introduces sloppy clothes into this world. "The 90s stuff was the trickiest," Moeller says, noting that she needed to find recent items that look perfectly generic without distracting from the story. Take a scene where the reporter's editor decides to let loose. At first, we see him behind a desk, wearing a suit jacket, and the gag is that his "matching" pants are sweats.
"We were going to have a bright color, but we realized that didn't quite fit his character, and plus you would see it before he stood up," Moeller says. "So we decided to go with a color that was similar [to the jacket] but make [the sweatpants] incredibly oversized. So when he stood up, he could stretch them out. The silhouette – and not the color – became the joke."
Moeller relishes the chance to think about the jokes her costumes are telling. "That's really the joy of designing for Nick's plays," she says. "You get to do so many things. You get to be classy; you get to be funny; you get to be weird. And you get to laugh a lot."
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Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Jon Bass and Matthew Saldivar (in time-travel hat).