Beauty and fashion loom large in War Paint, the new Broadway musical that dramatizes the lives of trend-setting cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Two-time Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone star as Arden and Rubinstein, respectively, in the musical that spans the late 1930s to the early 1960s—setting the stage for a parade of evolving women’s fashion.
Designing War Paint’s costumes required a multi-faceted approach from six-time Tony Award winner Catherine Zuber, whose ensemble designs would be elemental in establishing time and place. In addition, Arden and Rubinstein’s well-documented personal fashion tastes were key to bringing them to life onstage; but, each costume (from gowns to details on accessories) would ultimately be shaped by input from the show’s stars.
“War Paint was a unique challenge in that we have two leading ladies, so they need to be balanced,” Zuber says. “We can’t have one take focus over the other, and they need to have their own personalities.”
“Rubinstein was inherently a very theatrical person,” Zuber explains. “She had amazing taste. She liked to wear Schiaparelli, and more adventurous designers. She didn’t really necessarily wear what was up-to-the-minute. She was sort of timeless, but she always looked very fashionable and always had the correct hat. Her homes and the art she collected were so gloriously personal and artistic, so she was quite a wonderful source of inspiration. There was so much to work from.”
There was more creative leeway when it came to designing an onstage wardrobe for Arden, who led a more private life, and was not photographed as often as Rubinstein. “Elizabeth Arden was a much more discrete figure, and there weren’t as many images of her. The images that we did find tended to be less theatrical, so we needed to reinvent a little bit. Her style was quite classy, but discrete, and not the eccentric that Rubinstein was. When they need to be together onstage, we didn’t want Arden to recede, so we bumped her up a little bit to get the right balance.”
Zuber also uses color as an opportunity to subtly reflect Arden and Rubinstein’s emotional state throughout War Paint. “In the arc of the storytelling sometimes they’re aligned and sometimes they aren’t aligned,” Zuber explains. “In certain scenes where they have a commonality in what they’re experiencing emotionally, there’s a connection in the pallet of what they’re wearing and a color symbiosis of the two of them together.”
BEAUTY IN THE WORLD: RUBINSTEIN AND ARDEN FRAMED FOREVER
“These costumes are worn in the final scene and it’s quite beautiful with the two of them together. We’ve just experienced 30 years of their history, and they are quite elderly at this point, but they still hang on to their individual style. We wanted to convey the difference and uniqueness in this final moment. The style of Arden’s dress is very much of the time as opposed to Helena Rubinstein who’s sort of timeless.”
FOREVER BEAUTIFUL: RUBINSTEIN’S ENDURING THEATRICALITY
“When we were in Chicago, Patti felt the skirt was not full enough, so she had us make a really structured petticoat underneath because she really wanted it to be quite full. She also asked for this extra piece of jewelry, which I think is great. Patti LuPone has wonderful instincts in terms of what she needs for the character and she really makes it work. We did research on this skirt. In the actual photographs of her wearing this, she has a little jacket that has an elephant motif embodied in it. This seemed to be a skirt she favored quite a bit because you see it more than once.”
PINK: CONJURING ARDEN’S VIE EN ROSE
“For Elizabeth and her final costume, her final big number is called ‘Pink,’ and we felt that it needed to be a costume that still had that energy and that color. She’s an older woman at this point in the show. There were more images of Elizabeth Arden towards the end of her life at events that she would go to. This was similar to a lot of gowns that she happened to wear. It’s not a direct copy of something she wore, but it’s in the spirit of her style. It’s based on a design that was within the collections that year. It was in an issue of Vogue I had from the early ‘60s and it just seemed sort of perfect for Elizabeth. We found that the fabric on the top had the right kind of embroidery, but we added the beading because we were not able to find a beaded fabric that had that ’60s feeling.”
FIRE AND ICE: CAPTURING A CAMPAIGN
“This is Dorian Lee’s ‘Fire and Ice’ dress. In this scene, there are mirrors that come in and she has four or five reflections of herself that come to life. This is based on Revlon’s Fire and Ice ad that we replicated. We had to adjust the actual dress for dancing so it has movement. There is also a built-in body in the dress because it’s a quick change, and then they zip this on.”
In the gallery below, go in-depth with Zuber as she reveals the inspiration and process behind the full breadth of fashion in War Paint.