Critics often complain that playwright David Mamet has little use for female characters but in his newest work, Boston Marriage (now at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York), the ladies rule — and they certainly have the wardrobes for it. Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton are cast as a pair of 19th-century lesbians, ex-lovers, locked in a perpetual power struggle regarding Plimpton's decision to take a younger lover. Under the surface, however, it's Mamet business as usual; the characters' speeches are elegant, their intentions are cutthroat. And they're dressed to kill, courtesy of costume designer Paul Tazewell, who has outfitted them in a serious of lush period outfits, featuring voluptuously full skirts, smartly tailored tops, and a Technicolor palette.
This being a Mamet play, Tazewell notes that the script was vague about its period and setting. “The period we chose is about 1905, give or take two years,” he says, adding, “We wanted to capitalize on the Art Nouveau look.” (Walt Spangler's parlor setting is a pink box with Art Nouveau details.) This period, says Tazewell, is defined by “a major S curve in the silhouette, with a kind of pigeon front.” He adds, “I chose to clean up the look a little bit.” As for the vividly bright colors (reds, blues, pinks), he says, “When I look at fashion plates from that period, I'm always shocked at some of the colors used. What intensifies the colors is that the set is so vividly pink.”
He notes that there's a kind of progression in his color scheme: “In the first act, everything is bright, sunny, beautiful. Then it gets more serious,” and the colors darken a bit, featuring browns and rusts. Of course, the right underwear is crucial to creating the right look, so both actresses are fitted with corsets, petticoats, bum pads, and bust padding, in order to “sculpt the ideal shape underneath, so whatever you put on top flows over the body.” The ladies are also accessorized to the maximum, with hats, gloves, bags, and jewelry; the search for these items sent Tazewell to various Garment District wholesalers.
Interestingly, the ladies are well-dressed even though the script indicates that they are, in some ways, living on the margins of society (Burton is being kept by a male lover and, at the beginning of the play, intends to keep Plimpton in turn.) “They're nouveau riche,” says Tazewell. “They're almost like actresses [of the period]. They go from moment to moment, making do the best they can. In that way, it's a kind of ‘Chelsea Boy’ mentality, where it's all about presenting yourself outside of your home.”
As for materials, he says, “I tried to choose fabrics that those clothes would have been made in,” adding that he used silks, rayon velvets, wool jacquards, and silk peau de soie, among others. The costumes are extremely detailed because, says Tazewell, “This is who these women are. To be true to them, you need all that stuff.” (Burton and Plimpton's clothes were built by John Kristiansen. Valerie Marcus was the assistant costume designer.)
The ladies' elegant wigs are the work of Paul Huntley. “This happens to be one of his favorite periods,” says Tazewell, who adds that Gibson Girl imagery and the paintings of John Singer Sargent provided visual inspiration: “There's a very sexy, but sophisticated, quality about that period, unlike what was going on in the Victorian Era.”