My Fair Lady at Arena Stage features exquisite costumes crafted by designer Judith Bowden.
Costume designer Judith Bowden’s modern interpretation of Victorian and Edwardian styles is an integral part of director Molly Smith’s timely rendition of My Fair Lady, which runs at Arena Stage through January 6, 2013.
The musical created by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a play about a high-society professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell), who makes a bet that he can transform a rough and tumble flower seller, Eliza Doolittle (Manna Nichols), into an aristocratic lady in early 20th-century London.
“My Fair Lady is a potent story about class and the rigid social structures which confine us,” says Smith. “The play asks great questions: How does language define us? How do we judge others immediately through their language, manners, and dress? …I asked the designers to define this contemporary struggle through their art form.”
And they did. Bowden’s designs emphasize class differences, juxtaposing the steampunk styling of the working class’s garb—aged corsets and bodices with exposed stitching layered over drab plaid Victorian-style dresses—against the fine tailoring, jewel-toned silk, and velvet fabrics worn by the well-off. In fact, the play’s Ascot costumes were inspired by Alexander McQueen’s grandiose style.
“The clothing helps a performer create the physicality of a character. It can help define social relationships,” Bowden says. “I also find costumes can help reinforce the tone and nature of a scene and support the character journey and the overall story of the play.”
Doolittle’s wardrobe represents the transformation she undergoes from flower girl to fair lady. “Her choices are strong and feminine,” Bowden says. “This is manifested in the green outfit that she finishes the show with. The color is soft and bright—the strength of a newborn plant shoot.”
Costume creation started in September, with drapers first creating a muslin of each garment before constructing and fitting the final items. “Within these inspirations we hope you'll see a reflection of modern life through the prism of London in 1912,” Smith says. Tickets available at arenastage.org. 101 6th St. SW, 202-488-3300