Hamilton – A Brief Digression to Broadway

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Frock Flicks doesn’t usually venture into theater costume. Being that we don’t live New York City or London, we don’t have easy access to major, first-run theater productions, so that realm of costume isn’t part of our regular milieu.

However, it’s hard not to notice Hamilton (2015) this season. The songs are everywhere, writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda is everywhere from carpool karaoke on The Late Late Show to rapping about Puerto Rico on Last Week Tonight, the soundtrack won a Grammy, the show won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, it’s permeated American pop culture like few Broadway musicals have since, what, Cats or Annie except with a socio-political-historical conscience. And last Sunday, it swept the Tony Awards, as it was predicted to do, including costume designer Paul Tazewell winning for best costume design in a musical (after five previous Tony nominations).

Hamilton (2015), Lin-Manuel Miranda, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015

Period neckstock & lace trim on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shirt as Hamilton. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015.

The show Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, first Treasury Secretary, perhaps best known for dying after a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr. Using rap, hip hop, soul, and pop, along with bits of more typical showtunes, Hamilton tells the biography with a decent amount of historical accuracy by most accounts — tightening up details for dramatic tension and to fit the running time, as you’d expect, but not giving a radically fictionalized version of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or any of the other historical figures who are included. According to writer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Rolling Stone:

“Whenever I was in doubt as to creative license, I would always go back to his [Hamilton’s] writings. That was the gut check. And if you start from the premise that the truth is more interesting, that created the contours of our show. And also being really rigorous about sticking to Hamilton.”

Likewise, the costume design carefully references the 18th-century period of the actual people, while updating the look to fit with the modern music. The designer did a lot of research as well as talking with the musical’s writer. Tazwell said in the Observer:

“If I’m doing something set in a specific year about specific people, I’ll go online and research. But something can be set in a period, and I’ll be told to abstract it and mash it up. That’s what Hamilton is. It’s an exploration, a journey. We needed to decide the most compelling way of presenting this visually. These are people we’ve lived with most of our lives, the founders of this country. How are we going to make it new and exciting? It was important for the audience to feel a youthful vigor.”

While sharing his design sketches and inspirations for the show in many articles, Tazewell told Bloomberg what the essential costume design for Hamilton meant:

“We see [the characters] as these stodgy, periwigged — like these paintings. But the reality was they were upstarts, from the street. Well, not of the streets, but they had that kind of energy: ‘We’re going to mess this up, we’re going to create our own story.’ … Tommy [Kail, the director] and I decided it was most important to have the period represented from the shoulders down, and then everything from the shoulders up was contemporary. A representation of the actor and what they brought to the character, unadorned.”

Tazewell felt this worked well to blend the history with the hip-hop, saying in Playbill, “It was exciting and fresh to see how the contemporary language and music that Lin wrote smacked itself up against the period style and silhouette of the actual people.”

Hamilton (2015) cast, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015

Lots of period details on Hamilton costumes. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015.

 

Symbolism in Hamilton Costumes

The chorus of singers and dancers — many of whom switch roles throughout the show — are dressed in tones of pale tan that evoke the parchment of papers, letters, legal documents, and broadsides that made up so much of the founding fathers’ political activity, especially Alexander Hamilton. This also let the principal characters stand out. According to Tazewell in Tyranny of Style:

“The neutral base became the visual metaphor of parchment, the paper that Hamilton was creating his life with. That then provided a costume base to be able to add costume pieces that are more specifically representative of character by color and style.”

Hamilton (2015), cast

The ensemble.

Hamilton himself wears green to symbolize money, a specific request from Miranda to Tazewell. Thomas Jefferson is seen as the era’s rockstar, which is expressed somewhat literally by Jefferson wearing a bright purple jacket a la the musician Prince. Miranda comments in Rolling Stone:

“It’s about eliminating distance. If your mission is to make a story that happened 200-odd years ago resonate with contemporary audiences, what are the ways in which you can eliminate distance? And, man, does that purple suit with a frilly blouse do that.”

Hamilton (2015), Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson

Daveed Diggs does a star turn as Thomas Jefferson, evoking Prince’s Purple Rain.

Hamilton (2015), sketch for Alexander Hamilton costume

Tazewell’s sketch for Alexander Hamilton costume with green swatch.

Hamilton (2015), Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. Totally money.

Perhaps the most historically accurately dressed character is King George, complete with white curled wig. Since he’s set up as the opposition in distant in England, it makes sense that he has the most “different” and least approachable costume.

Hamilton (2015), Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jonathan Groff, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015

The contrast between American Hamilton & old-world King George (Jonathan Groff) is heightened by the costumes. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, July 2015.

But for all the symbolism and modern “reliability,” the Hamilton costumes do evoke the historical period of the time. Looking at the pictures, what comes through is a genuine sense that this is a historical play, this is about real things that happened. It’s not a fantasy story, and it’s not a comedy making fun of the past. The historical costumes are stripped down, but effective for providing a historical context.  This is probably due to the care Tazewell took with the construction and materials. He said in Tyranny of Style:

“I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me. As we head into the later years of their lives they go to cotton voile and nets, which were prevalent in the 1800s Regency period.”

And it shows in the fullness of the skirts and how they move. Likewise, the men’s suits have all the buttons and collars, waistcoats and shirt frills, all the elements you’d see in any period production. Another thing Tazewell made sure of was having the principal male characters in riding boots during the wartime part of the story, but as they mature into statesmen, they are wearing shoes and hose. All these details matter, and it looks like Hamilton didn’t skimp.

Hamilton (2015), sketch for Angelica Schuyler costume

Tazewell’s fabric & sketch for Angelica Schuyler costume.

Hamilton (2015), Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, & Jasmine Cephas Jones as the Schuyler Sisters

Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, & Jasmine Cephas Jones as the Schuyler sisters.

Hamilton (2015), Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, & Jasmine Cephas Jones as the Schuyler Sisters

Crisp swirling taffeta and petticoats.

Hamilton (2015), sketch for Peggy Schuyler costume

Tazewell’s sketch for Peggy Schuyler costume.

Tickets for the Broadway show are sold out till the end of time, but touring productions are planned for 2017. I hope to catch the show then and see if it’s as good on the road as it has clearly been in NYC!

 

Have you seen Hamilton? Do you have the cast recording?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

17 Responses

  1. Kelly

    So happy you guys did this. I (saw it twice, the second time was just very very good luck) noted the boots to shoes thing when I saw it and was impressed. I also like how they change the silhouettes to show the passage of time but keep the colors consistent (helps if you’re in the nosebleed section to ID whose who).

    I also really like the way the choreo shows off the women’s skirts, particularly during the Shuyler Sisters bit.

    All in all, I think the best way to explain what I liked about the Hamilton costumes is that the designer was obviously aware of what clothing in the period looked like, and things are a combination of a) accurate b) functional for a stage show (like the way the female chorus members have corset like tops so they can wear skirts or pants) or c) modernly anachronistic (like Hercules’ hat) instead of being a weird mismatch of periods.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Glad to hear from someone who saw the show! Reading up on the designer, he clearly knows his history & has a classical theater design background (Shakespeare & historical costume) even tho’ he’s best known for Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, before Hamilton.

      Reply
      • Kelly

        And I’m glad there are high res pictures of the costumes (although less from the second act) since I certainly only got the far away impact, lol. It will be interesting to see how the costumes change or stay the same for the inevitable filmed version.

        I’m trying to think of anything I learned by watching the show that has to do with the costumes. King George has less stuff on him each time he comes out. The full coat with the mink tails is just the first time. He interacts more with his surroundings each time he comes out. Eliza is in a light blue empire waist dress in the second half, but then after their son dies, she has a black thing over it. By the very end she’s back in blue. Apparently Jefferson was originally in brown but they changed it for broadway (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/hamilton-creator-lin-manuel-miranda-the-rolling-stone-interview-20160601?page=11) which make sense for the way his character is introduced (got the biggest “whooo” out of the audience both times with the exception of the first “Alexander Hamilton” by Lin.) Despite the fact that the lyrics say he’s wearing glasses, he is not wearing glasses.

        Reply
  2. Cheryl

    Oooh this looks good. Thanks for the overview – I’ve been wondering what the fuss was all about!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I’ve heard the songs SO MUCH, I was worried the costumes would be super-modern, but it was really satisfying to see they had a legit historical basis!

      Reply
  3. Al

    as a theatrical costumer all I can think is “oh great, when we rent these costumes I’m going to have to hand stitch all those silk taffeta hems in a way that won’t show? ARGH”

    Reply
  4. Overhire

    I had the good fortune to work on one of his shows (this was almost 20 years ago) and can vouch for the fact that he definitely has a grounding in good historical costuming technique but knows when to deviate. That production had lots of fantastical elements, but you could definitely see the proper historical details underpinning the rest of the design. I accidentally put a machine needle through a nail trying to sew a proper square placket into the underarm of a shirt that I knew full well would barely be visible in the production (it was under a vest, even!) but it was the accurate construction technique for that class of character at that time period. That’s what we were given to build, instead of pulling a passable stripey-shirt out of stock. Details like that matter.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      That’s lovely to hear (I mean, not the needle thru the nail, lol)! I’d read a few more articles about Tazewell’s background & was just so impressed. Looking at the high-res pix (& most of these, you can click on them for the bigger versions), you can really see details, fit, & quality that look like they were a great build.

      Reply
  5. Kelly

    While we’re on the topic of broadway, a comparison of Maria Bjørnson broadway costumes v. the film costumes for Phantom of the Opera would make a good snark week post. There are so many cool costumes in the musical and movie was sooooo awful on that (and other) counts.

    Reply
  6. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Ok, now I really, really want to see this even more. I was already crushing on Lin-Manuel Miranda and now roawrrrrr……..Historical nerd in sexy waistcoats and a fellow Puerto Rican to boot! Aye Dios Mio!

    Reply
  7. Kate D

    I LOVE the soundtrack! I’ve watched every clip from the show I can find. I had already bought the materials for a 1776 dress before I heard of the show and now I’m even more excited to finish it!

    Reply
  8. AshleyOlivia

    I have been obsessed with Hamilton since a friend in my grad school cohort turned me onto it. Now we pretty much only communicate in Hamilton references.

    I love the costumes from the show judging from the production stills and photographs I’ve seen. Especially the fact that they put the men in hose and shoes after the war scenes! My only quibble, and it’s so small but it really bugs me, is that Daveed Diggs wears that bright purple ensemble, a much more loud outfit than the restrained dress Miranda/Hamilton wears, when the play’s lyrics have Jefferson poking fun at the way Hamilton dresses in phrases that insinuate Hamilton is a loud and tasteless dresser (“The way he primps and preens and dresses like the pits of fashion” and ” Smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty”). The “dresses like fake royalty” comment is just baffling coming from Diggs in that bright purple coat when directed towards Miranda in the (by comparison) pretty unremarkable green waistcoat. Historically, I think the lines make sense, because Chernow’s biography suggests that Hamilton had a penchant for tight clothes in garish colors (at least at one point in life), and I certainly understand why they would put Diggs in the purple coat, but in conjunction with those specific lines in the play I’m just left scratching my head.

    Reply
    • Indie

      Dammit, I think this ate my reply! Oh well, take two…

      I’ve been lucky enough to see the show, and the way Daveed Diggs delivers the lyrics and the way the audience reacts (laughter), I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to point out how hypocritical Jefferson is.
      Genius.com’s annotations (which are approved by Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the “fake royalty” line say that it’s supposed to highlight Jefferson’s lack of self-awareness.
      http://genius.com/7898705

      Reply
    • Jackie

      Chernow’s biography also mentions that Jefferson was a huge clothes horse while he lived in France, and only pivoted to the “I’m a simple farmer” look once he came home to America after the war. The stage costuming for Jefferson reflects his earlier look, and in context with that line, serves as a nice device to point out his hypocrisy in criticizing Hamilton without having to give the audience the whole backstory as an infodump.

      Reply
  9. Heather Rose Jones

    You touch on most of the observations I had about the costumes. I particularly liked the way they used the “neutral” base for the chorus so that easily added coats etc. could enable visual quick-changes of role, e.g., from British to colonial soldiers. I also liked the way the women’s silhouettes evolved to show the passage of time. Definitely make sure you see it when it goes on tour. The dancing is spectacular too!

    Reply

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