Quick Change

by Michael S. Eddy

Costume Designer Paloma Young takes us back to the 1940s

I recently caught up with the Tony-winning costume designer Paloma Young to talk about how she brought the cast back to post-WWll Cleveland for the new musical Bandstand. The plot follows a returning vet, a musician who pulls together a band of fellow vets that join a national competion and end up finding thier ways home. It should be noted that Bandstand is also the first Broadway musical to be '6 Certified' by Got Your Six, a non-profit that works with entertainment partners to normalize the depictions of veterans to dispel common misconceptions about the veteran experience.

SD: Costumes in a show like this play such an important role. What were some of the considerations upmost in your mind?

Paloma Young: Knowing that the subject of the musical is post war trauma—what we now call PTSD—I wanted as much as possible for these characters to seem as real and imperfect as possible and to feel like they were living in a real world. At the same time, there is some crazy Andy Blankenbuehler dancing going on, and there are also insane quick changes. The script was written very cinematically; it jumps from place to place very, very quickly, often several times in a song. If we were doing the movie version of Bandstand we would have time for the actors to go back to their trailers and change their outfits. So I needed to design outfits that they shed as layers, or add layers, to take us to a different place, a different time of day, to a slightly different time of year. All of those subtle cues that I wanted to be able to get in there in the most practical way possible.

The opening number is the most challenging in the show for me, for a lot of the departments, but especially for the performers and wardrobe crew. I had to think about those changes when designing it so it could function as this crazy changing machine backstage.

We are jumping through the first, maybe month or so of our lead character Donny’s experiences back home in Cleveland after the war. We’re trying to create this sense of whirlwind, his moving into a new apartment and going to different clubs, progressively seedier clubs. Also he’s being haunted by the death of a friend, so there’s all these flashbacks in the middle of that.

Logistically, we looked at ways of underdressing and over-dressing. Many of the male dancers at the very top of the show are wearing three pairs of pants—and they’re all wool; so they’re true heroes of the theatre! As the number progresses, they get to shed the pants. The women are also layered. There’s all of these really amazing 1940s designs that are very asymmetrical and as a designer I’m drawn to. But I also had to create designs that could come on and off really easily. A super interesting, strange garment is not going to work when you are wearing five different dresses in one number.

Wool and multiple layers, how did you keep them from looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?

It’s a combination of really excellent tailoring on the part of my vendors, my makers, and they’re also beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter. So I got a lot of outside help there.

The original production was at the Paper Mill Playhouse. What kind of adjustments did you make coming to Broadway?

At Paper Mill we actually used a lot of real vintage clothing. When we moved to Broadway, it was about recreating some of those looks in a way that was more durable.

Right before designing the Paper Mill production I had watched the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. It was made right after the war about veterans coming home and having difficulty reintegrating into their former lives, which had a lot of parallels with our show. I felt like our musical should look like that movie. The movie was in black and white, but in a sense it should not have a lot of color. It should not look like Guys and Dolls; it should not look like On the Town. It can have moments of hope and brightness.

How did you source your fabrics to stay true to the period and your design?

This show was incredibly hard to source, just the 40s in general. A lot of the wools for the men’s suiting are a little bit too drapey or thin. And tracking down the right wools that are going to have the right structure for 1940s suiting is you just do a lot of swatching, we ordered from certain wool suppliers.

The women’s fabrics are really difficult, because just like now, women’s fashion changes so much and the fabrics that are used are often dictated by what is new. Also, right after the war hardly anything was made out of silk. A lot of things were made out of rayon, that was something that there was a lot of during the war, and there’s not a lot of right now. So it was finding fabrics that looked like rayons and finding some rayons. 

Also the prints are very unique to the period. I ended up buying a lot of vintage fabric. There are sellers on Ebay, and Etsy, and also local vintage sellers that I just had them send me pictures of their stock. And I said I need at least six yards of the same fabric in order to make at least one dress. So, that was really as close as I could get to being in a time machine and going back to a fabric store in 1945.

Do you use any techniques like digital printing to create patterns?

We did. We ended up printing one fabric that is in the show. We also printed for some of our cover costumes because we ran out of the real fabric. Those are if there is an understudy for Julia that goes on, we’ll see some printed fabric there.

In the show have this bar owner and her waitress, and we wanted to feel like there was some sort of uniform for this bar. I had a little bit of fabric from an existing garment that I was in love with, and I couldn’t find anything else like that. And I knew that we would have to be building several shirts for both of these characters and all of their swings. So I used the little fabric I had to scan in all these little bitty pieces of fabric and then piece it together, collage it together and be like, “I think I’ve recreated this pattern.” I didn’t even have a yard of the fabric to give to the printer. All I had was like a little crop top. So I was like, “I think this leaf goes with this leaf.” It’s not actually the same pattern as the original, but it’s very close.

Was there a technique or an element that you would call out and highlight to fellow costumers?

I think, actually, the thing that I would most bring up in conversation with another costume designer is the complex changes in this show. It’s the most I’ve designed by necessity. I have this enormous chart that takes up several pieces of paper in order to even be able to read the writing on it. That has all of the actors. I mean we always have this kind of chart, but this chart has ... I think I counted there were 93 individual sections of the show. It’s like within the songs there is a break where someone is changing their clothes either off stage or on stage.

There were times where Andy, the director, would turn to me, because he knew that I had the chart, and be like, “I need someone to be a bar back here so they can move this table. Who can be the bar back?” It was a combination of wanting to know who had the elements in their show closet of some pants and suspenders, and a hat, short sleeves, but also just who is available. It was casting by who could make the change in time.

Your design was beautiful and certainly was integral to the show.

Thank you, I also have to say I was thrilled about the recognition from the Drama Desk, it meant a lot to me for this show. Because the clothing in the show is not flashy. It’s appropriate, and I feel like it’s very thoughtful. But it’s mostly trying to stay out of the way of the story, and just be a support for it.