costume designer for Footloose
"What's the big deal about costumes for Footloose ?" you might ask. "After all, it's just a bunch of kids in street-clothes."
After just a few minutes talking with costume designer Toni-Leslie James, however, it becomes clear that dressing up Footloose , as with any big musical, can be much more complex than an audience would imagine.
For example, numerous costume changes from scene to scene have to be taken into account. Clothing that looks swell against one backdrop might fade into, or look hideous against another. In our phone conversation, James explained how she approached that problem:
"We pulled all these clothes onto the set. We'd go from church, which was all yellow, then the drop would be blue, while the same costume had to carry into the burger blast, which uses an orange drop. So our major challenge there was color. The colors had to be able to play against 3 different sets."
Continued James, Ariel sings "I Need A Hero" in that sequence, so she needs to pop out from the other characters. We had her in a floral shirt and blue jeans -- and she blended directly into the seat she was sitting on! You couldn't focus on her. So we changed her into a tight-fitting, white sleeve, v-neck shirt and gold suede pants. Now she pops out from everyone else. It was that simple." Balancing glamour with reality was also a challenge for the costume department, James explained. "With Ariel, you want to make her look like the star of the show. So I started out wanting her to be really cute. We shopped for her at Barneys and Sacks, but that made her look like a very hip NY girl, as opposed to a midwestern girl. At that point we had to concentrate on how to make a pair of jeans so that she'd look sexy but still like a southwest high schooler. We did a lot of Gap and downtown shopping. It's more than just buying a white t-shirt; the fit on the body has to look just right."
Helping James' work process on modern-dress musicals is -- of all things -- her television experience, including three years dressing "As The World Turns." Said James, "I doubt I could do a modern-dress musical with the volume of clothes it uses if I hadn't had soap opera experience. Except for Angels In America , my Broadway work has been period-oriented" [The Tempest, Jelly's Last Jam ]."
"Footloose has a large volume of clothes, with lots of quick changes where everyone on stage is changing. For example, the opening number in Chicago is very urban. We had to create a visual difference at the top of the show, to Beaumont, in the midwest. At the same time, I didn't want to over-design the show. The clothes had to be based in reality... I was fortunate that most of the cast is very young. Still, some are in their late 20s but playing high school kids, which was a major challenge."
As most experienced professionals in any discipline would say, the key is simplicity. "We had to make things simple," said James. "Usually I like to work with a lot of detail and pattern. But here, solid blocks of color worked better than intricate details."
James also keeps her opening night rituals and routines quite simple. "I never watch the show opening night. I sit in the wardrobe room or sit in the bar across the street. I never sit with my husband in the audience. Usually I'm still wrapping everyone's presents, too. So I'll have a beer, read my book, show up at the end, kiss everyone and go to the party."