COSTUMES, FROM THE COVER | Designer, Anthony Ward, tells Miriam DiNunzio how he makes it happen
By Miriam DiNunzio, Chicago Sun-Times
The Starting Point: Eliza Doolittle is taken to the Royal Ascot horserace meeting, the highlight of the British aristocracy’s social season
‘The key to designing this show, is to start with the whole Ascot scene. It’s this brilliant black and white scene. I had discovered through extensive research of [costume designer for the original production of the play] Cecil Beaton’s work that he originally designed it in black and white because Ascot was in mourning [in 1910], the year that [King] Edward VII died. Instead of canceling the Ascot season, everyone decided they would go ahead with it because he so enjoyed the sport.
‘This was fairly simple for us. It’s very gentlemanly tailoring throughout the show. Jonathan Pryce, who was the original Professor Higgins in London, wanted to be in a mac [a British Macintosh coat much like an American trench coat], so straight away we were right off to what Rex Harrison wore in the movie. In the current production, we instead make use of a waistcoat, [laughing] what you Americans would call a vest. So [Christopher Cazenove] wears numerous waist coats and [jackets], from morning suit to evening coat. He is a man of strict discipline, the clothes are perfectly tailored to him, to his lifestyle.
“The three things every well-dressed English gentleman should have? A very comfy pair of slippers, an excellent suit -- perfectly tailored -- that you can dress up and dress down, and a really good [sport] jacket. And coats. Lots and lots of overcoats.
‘We had to take her from young, girl to sophisticated socialite. So we transform her from absolute poverty as a flower girl, to this student of Professor Higgins, where she dons this almost “Gigi”-like blouse and skirt. Then she’s transformed into a stunning beauty for the ball.
“So the costumes had to take her on this journey. The fabrics move from the every day to the more elaborate, elegant and sophisticated as the story progresses.”
‘I had a brilliant milliner in Sean Benton, who created these enormous skeletal frames that were then covered in fabric and beading. And I had done a lot of research on hats of the period. I was inspired by period stories of these magnificent hats at Ascot. So we used things like burnt ostrich plumes, peacock feathers, silk fabrics.
“And of course, proper silk top hats for all the gentlemen, and caps for the working class.”
‘It’s an iconic flower girl look, isn’t it? You still draw a mucky old coat, a scuzzy skirt, the broken down hat, tattered gloves, worn away boots.”
‘Of course Audrey Hepburn’s dress [from the 1964 film] is iconic. So we knew that Eliza’s dress must be white with beaded spangles and such.
“You need that idea of purity [about Eliza]. So [director] Trevor [Nunn] wanted it to look like everyone else at the ball was from an older generation. He wanted every other woman there to look and feel as if they were matrons from Edward VII’s reign.
“Enter Eliza Doolittle and now we’re going into a new age. Here’s this very young, modern woman, fresh and with her whole life ahead of her.
“Everyone else at the ball is in some color, so what stands out against all that color? White, of course. Eliza will always be in white for us. Forever.”
“So Trevor went back and found lots of photographs from Ascot that year with everyone dressed in black, [and the women] with these enormous black hats. They all actually looked like shopkeepers’ wives. We made use of all kinds of satin-backed crepes, beaded black fabrics for the dresses and the hats.”
‘My Fair Lady’
When: Preview Tuesday; opens Wednesday through Feb. 3
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Phone: (312) 902-1400