When you hear the word Chicago, what do you see think of? Fishnets? Black lace? Sheer black muscle shirts? The sleek and sexy look of the long-running Broadway musical revival has become a brand unto itself—so much so it overshadows the original production in the zeitgeist. Did you even realize that the original Bob Fosse production contained color? Still, maintaining the brand—and the costumes that inspired it—over the course of the past 25 years is an exercise in creativity and restraint. After all, just because a show has been running for a quarter of a century doesn’t mean it doesn’t change. “It’s a constant evolution,” says costume designer William Ivey Long.
As Long micro-adjusts for each new cast member, and each new production around the world, every new element in the design must be part of the original vocabulary.
The signature minimalist black harkens back to the Encores! production that launched the 1996 Broadway revival. Chicago director Walter Bobbie was the director and producer hired by City Center to create the Encores! series. As originally intended, the Encores! series would present staged readings of old musicals. The first year included Fiorello!, and Long decided simplicity was the key. “The men wear tuxedos or cutaways and the women wear cocktail dresses or long dresses in black and they hold their scripts and sing,” Long recalls.
The second year Bobbie decided on Chicago, with the full Fosse choreography, and they decided to keep the rule for simple black in the costume department. “So it was because I had set it up [the year before] you see, and also, by removing color, it supports the line, the sensuality,” says Long. He went to Danskin and Capezio and got out his scissors and made costumes to last four performances. (The joke’s on him.)
When the revival opened its complementary London production in 1997, Long amended his design to create more structure, especially for the women in his cast. Having already taken that liberty, when Chicago launched its U.S. National Tour in April 1997, “Walter Bobbie said, ‘Oh let’s just make them all new looks, just keep inventing,’ and the audience was in an uproar. They wanted to see the Chicago from Broadway.”
The Chicago from Broadway design relies on three guiding principles: 1. References to the ’20s (“Roxy’s dress is really a flapper dress; there are references to gangsters like Mama Morton in pinstripe; and Billy Flynn is in a classic tuxedo that Frank Capra had in all his gangster films,” says Long.) 2. References to Fosse in the ’70 with, bell bottoms and strict binarily-gendered costumes (according to Fosse’s own style) and 3. The energy and feeling of today.
Roxy’s flirtatiousness comes through in her lace designs, while Velma’s hard-as-nails persona comes through her pragmatic style. “Mama Morton is in a pantstuit, two-piece, because she’s this butch matron lady yet chic,” says Long.
For the ensemble, Long focuses on balance. If one man is in a sheer longsleeve muscle shirt, another is in a vest, and another is in a bowling shirt. But never, ever a tank top. “Too easy,” Long dismisses. “Anyone can wear a black tank top. That’s not Chicago.”
Long chooses costumes based on each individual performer, and because Broadway constantly welcomes new cast members, he’s perpetually in Chicago-land. “Like when I made [and assigned] the bowling shirt, that performer just had a real World War II-guy look with this haircut and his attitude,” Long says, as an example. “And I just knew I needed trousers and a natural waist.” But that means that another man onstage will wear hip-hugging bell bottoms and a velvet-and-sheer stripped shirt. And if one woman wears a black bra under longsleeve black sheer and a black wrap around her waist, another woman wears a black leotard under a sheer collared shirt, knotted at her ribcage. Any adjustment made for one person can cascade to adjustments in the rest of the ensemble.
Of course, with every new Roxy and Velma, Long takes the same care in dressing the person, not just the character. Roxy’s neckline changes. The thickness of the straps on Velma’s dress varies. Most audiences don’t ever notice a change; but that’s credit to the clarity of Long’s design.
Still, “every five years Barry Weissler, our producer, will call me and say, ‘We want to freshen up the look,’” Long says. “And I bring boards of people wearing different looks of black and new ideas and each time he said, ‘Nah, I think these are timeless. Why change them?’” And the legacy of the Cook County jail lives on.
With 9,674 performance (as of February 23, 2020), even when Long isn’t fitting a new cast member, he must maintain the show. He visits the Broadway production at the Ambassador Theatre about twice a year to observe and take notes. The most common problems? Patched fishnets (“You can’t patch fishnet,” Long says indefatigably) and the richness of the black in the costumes.
Long engages in a never-ending battle against fade. He liaises closely with the wardrobe department to ensure their cleaning technique (a dipping procedure into cold water with ivory flakes) preserves the dye.
For as long as Chicago runs and continues to mount tours and international productions, Long will find himself messing about in the realm of the merry murderesses, balancing the ’20s, ’70s, and today—however long today may last.