From saris to hoopskirts, costumer brings looks of ‘King and I’ to life

Catherine Zuber, with 13 Tony Award nominations and six wins, is a celebrated costume design veteran of the Broadway world. Yet “The King and I” presented her with a challenge she’d never before faced: bringing to the stage Victorian-era English clothing and the King of Siam’s 19th-century court, all in one production.

Said Zuber, “‘The King and I’ was very unusual. Everyone wears very eccentric clothing.”

For the Broadway revival of this West-meets-East classic, Zuber and three assistants worked a year and a half on more than 200 costumes. Zuber ultimately won her fifth Tony for costume design for the production.

The touring production of “The King and I,” opening at Texas Performing Arts’ Bass Concert Hall this week, includes 175 costumes for a cast of 50.

Zuber’s passion for costumes began as a student at Yale University, where she initially focused on photography and literature. She quickly realized she was fascinated with sociology and psychology and wanted to do something artistic that melded all her interests.

“Costume design combined all the things I loved into one discipline,” she said.

Zuber begins the design process for every production the same way — with research.

“I was very lucky because there are quite a few photographs of the royal court and the wives of the king from the original production. There are portraits of the royal wives, and I could really see the detail within the fabrics,” she said, referring to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original 1951 production.

She also looked at photos of fabrics from late 19th-century Siam (now Thailand) and studied books on women’s fashion in England from the same time period to learn the shape of garments that were prevalent. Saris, which feature layers of wrapped fabric, and big hoopskirts were the trends, respectively.

From there, she translates her vision to paper and confers with the director — in this case, Bartlett Sher — on the emotional journey of the characters, which helps inform the design.

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After budgets have been established, finding the fabrics and other materials such as headpieces, wigs and accessories comes next, before they go into production mode. Each actor has at least two fittings per costume before technical and dress rehearsals begin. Then, Zuber is on hand at rehearsals, noting any changes that need to be made.

“We had a situation where some choreography had changed, so at the first technical rehearsal, the dancers wearing these particular trousers couldn’t do some of the moves they needed to do,” said Zuber. “It was this mad scramble to get those altered so they’d work for the choreography.”

“I always work very closely with the actors. They need to be comfortable and need to be able to move. With movement, it’s always challenging.”

One such challenge was with saris. Zuber had to come up with a design that would look as though it were wrapped around the body, which is not practical for the stage, to allow the actors freedom of movement. Her trick?

“Lots and lots of fabric. I always feel you can’t skimp on the fabric. It won’t move as well as it should, and the audience — even if they know nothing about costuming — will be able to tell a difference. They’ll say, ‘That doesn’t look quite right.’”

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When asked to estimate the number of yards of fabric used for “The King and I,” Zuber it’s tough to estimate; but she does note that many costumes used 10 or more yards per outfit.

As British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, Laura Michelle Kelly’s costumes certainly fall into this category. Zuber designed three skirts the actress wears throughout the musical, each featuring a bamboo hoop of a different size: the smallest for travel (which she’s wearing when she arrives at the King of Siam’s court), a medium-size hoop for daily life in the palace, and the largest for her iconic ball gown for the “Shall We Dance” musical number, where she waltzes around the stage with the King of Siam (played by Jose Llana). To keep the skirts from flying up as Kelly dances, Zuber sewed 3 pounds of steel weights in little bags into the hems.

For the characters in the royal court, “fabrics from India were quite useful,” said Zuber. She had a Korean costume intern at the time who’d traveled throughout Asia and taken photos of masks, which then became the basis for the masks in the ballet sequence. Wooden headpieces came from Thailand raw, and Zuber and her team painted and reconfigured them for the Kingdom of Siam. A variety of topknots, wrapped and pinned into place atop the children of the court’s heads, quickly and efficiently transform their hair into a 19th-century Siam style.

For all the complexities “The King and I” presented, there was one thing that didn’t require much thought: “The footwear was easy — a lot are barefoot,” Zuber said.

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