“The greatest challenge was to bring a fresh approach to My Fair Lady and, at the same time, honoring the expectations of the audience,” says costume designer Catherine Zuber, who has earned her 14th nomination for her work on this season’s revival of the classic Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical.
My Fair Lady has longed serve iconic looks, from Julie Andrews’ flat brimmed straw hat in the original Broadway production to Audrey Hepburn’s stark black-and-white stunner in the “Ascot Gavotte” for the 1964 movie. But Zuber took her cue from director Bartlett Sher (a collaboration that has struck gold for Zuber; of her six Tony wins, four were under Sher’s direction). His broader message of subverting societal hierarchies of class and gender—as was the focus in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which first inspired Lerner and Lowe—informed everything from the fabrics to the styles to the colors of Zuber’s design.
“The juxtaposition of classes was an underlying theme, staring with our first scene at Covent Garden: the operagoers, the workers, the prostitutes, the street hustlers all convened in one location,” says Zuber. And while every iteration of My Fair Lady certainly shows a difference between classes, Zuber took her interpretation a step further. “I was careful to distinguish the lower, middle, servant, and aristocratic classes,” she explains. Zuber notes that fashion took a turn in 1910, but the poor would have been behind the times—allowing her to create an even starker comparison between the rich and poor. The soot-covered inhabitants of Covent Garden are a far cry from her practically bleach-clean look in the upper-class horse race at the Ascot.
But that’s entirely the point. Zuber’s work unfolds layers of the storytelling, especially when it comes to Eliza—the street flower seller who approaches Professor Henry Higgins for linguistics lessons so that she may become a florist in a proper shop. The designer uses color to tell an origin story—dressing her in tattered blue in the opening scene, a regal blue for her first lessons, champagne at her most elegant and farthest from her roots, and back to blue in the final scene of the show. As for the difficult phonetics professor, Zuber balanced his elegance with “a charming arrogance to convention.” Higgins stands out in Ascot—but not in the way of his protégé. “He purposely dresses incorrectly for Ascot,” says Zuber.
Here, Zuber continues to dive deep into her designs as we examine her craft for the ten-time Tony-nominated My Fair Lady.