So I thought I’d ask five time Tony award-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber for some clues as to what she’s created and how she went about it. Googling images of the Broadway production I see that the colour palette she’s chosen for the women’s bathing suits is bold. ‘It’s based on tropical flowers’ she explains and suddenly all those hot pinks, cerise and purples make complete sense, turning the women into a hot house of exquisite blooms.
The swimwear offers more coverage than a bikini which was officially invented later, in 1946. ‘Yes, these are definitely two pieces,’ says Zuber, who researched the look in period magazines and searching through glamour shots, mail-order catalogues and family snaps from the era.
‘The look is really a sun top with shorts, and the belly button is always covered. The important thing about forties fashions is the figure is fuller and defined by infrastructure of boning and fitting. When you compare it to today’s swimwear, costumes today are much more unforgiving, offering little by way of support but in those days, swimwear borrowed techniques from corsetry for a very sculpted silhouette. They didn’t have the stretch fabrics we take for granted today, so they used techniques like smocking and gathering to great effect.’
So ladies, think amplified, shaped bust lines and maximised assets.
When it came to glamour, Zuber decided that ‘Nellie and the nurses wear gowns they would have bought in 1939, just before the war started so they would not be looking very up to the minute. They had a practical aspect; they had to be easy to pack for any emergency, so they are fluid. We’ve kept with the tropical colour palette for the evening wear with shades of coral, raspberry, maroon and pink, and Nellie in a sea-green turquoise that contrasts with the other girls.’
As for the men, just because they’re in uniform doesn’t make Zuber’s job easier: 'The Seabees didn’t follow the rules, they all customised their uniforms to make them individual, so some have their sleeves up, some down, some tuck their shirt in, some don’t. That all requires a lot of attention to detail.’
One of Zuber’s favourite parts of the show is the Follies sequence ‘in which all the costumes are supposed to be made from rope, netting and paper. That would be too fragile to withstand stage wear and tear so we’ve taken all those organic materials printed with comic-book pages and covers from Life magazine and printed it on to a tougher paper fabric decorated with rope, leaves, netting and shells. It’s a lovely scene that shows how resourceful and inventive the nurses were but it’s also poignant and nostalgic because they are trying to keep alive the tradition of Thanksgiving which is very important to Americans, no matter where they are.’
Zuber does all her sketches by hand before the designs are scanned into a computer so that they can be grouped and plotted through scenes. She also has a dedicated fabric room in her New York workspace, an Aladdin’s cave of samples gathered from suppliers all over the world. She’ll dive into her swatch collection for her next job, which sees her team up again with Bartlett Sher, this time on a production of L’elisir D’amore at the Met.