Costume designer Gregg Barnes' task for the current Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song was to come up with a heightened reality for the clothes, making them honest to the spirit of the late 50s/early 60s time period but also having them resonate with a modern audience. “On ‘Fan Tan Fannie,’ for instance [right and inset], I found this piece of research that was, ironically, a strip bar in Hong Kong in 1962,” the designer explains. “They were wearing these big fishnet hose, and these weird fringes below the knee. So we took that and gave it a more modern feel, almost Madonna-esque.”

The over-the-top number “Chop Suey” blended the Food Network's Iron Chef with a 60s groove. The women wear huge Chinese takeout boxes with the words “We Deliver” lighting up on cue (bottom left). “Originally, the women had wonderful noodle wigs that had shrimp and water chestnuts, and other things in chop suey, tangled up in a wig with noodles wound through chopsticks, but the chopsticks kept getting caught in the takeout handle. So we replaced them with China-doll wigs.”

Wigs were also a big part of the number “Gliding Through My Memoree,” in which the character Harvard has supposedly designed a raft of costumes for women representing nations of the world. “I said to [director] Robert [Longbottom], ‘We should feel like Harvard had a friend that was going to beauty college.’ So Miss Spain has these goofy horns made out of pony hair. Even the ones built to look like hats [as in Miss UK, bottom second from left] were wigs.”

The more traditional Chinese garb was an equally mixed bag. The costumes from the Peking Opera were totally based on research and in fact built in Beijing (bottom, third from left). “It was economically much more feasible,” Barnes says. “The embroidery technique they use is called couched thread, and it's incredibly difficult and expensive. The trick was to find the line between the authenticity of the visuals and what would appeal to the Western eye.”

The Mao suits, which appear in the opening scenes as the main character, Mei-Li, flees her homeland for San Francisco, were inspired by much less traditional garb (bottom right). “I found a picture of a Donna Karan line of ladies' suits from the early 90s that were based on Mao suits. And of course they're beautifully tailored and there are no pockets on them and the buttons are in an enclosed flap — it's like couture Mao.”

The big finale is a wedding, all done in reds with accents of gold. All the fabrics are Chinese damask, using about 30 different pattern variations ranging from phoenixes to flowers to dragon shapes. The Linda Low costume is based on a Marilyn Monroe dress that Barnes took and made his own. “It's elaborately beaded, one of the most heavily beaded things in the show, and beautifully made by Tricorne.”

Barnes calls Flower Drum Song “the biggest little show I've ever done. The costume count is around 250 and the ensemble is only 12, with eight principals. The backstage story is so incredibly complex and beautifully orchestrated by wardrobe supervisor Lorraine Borek. Every single scene is a fast change.”