Catherine Zuber is a professional expert in bamboo hoopskirts and whalebone corsets. The five-time Tony Award–winning costume designer stood a few floors beneath Lincoln Center Theater before a rack of luscious silks, hand-sewn embroidery, and crisp white tunics that will need to be professionally ruined for the new production of The King and I, which opens this April. The revival of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is directed by Bartlett Sher, and stars Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific) as Anna, and Ken Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima) as the King. The costumes cover all the tax brackets of Siam in 1862: grand gowns influenced by Western fashions, carefully draped trousers for the king, silken pajamas for the royal children, those distressed rags for the kingdom’s peasants, and wrap skirts for the king’s stash of wives.
To accurately re-create a gown that a Western woman would wear in 1862, Zuber avoided the poufy Disney princess look as much as possible. At first the fabric she chose was a champagne color, but in the stage lighting it immediately looked too yellow, like a character from another tale as old as time, Belle from Beauty and the Beast. After testing several satin swatches under the stage lights, she chose a lavender that changes and reflects the light in a way that makes it hard to keep your eyes off it: it’s gorgeous.
Next up: that hoop. To give the dress volume and shape without being a stiff, hula-hoop prison, traditional heavy bamboo was modernized with sprung steel in the shape of an egg, which helps O’Hara move around the stage with ease. Anna has a hoopskirt for every occasion (you don’t?): a travel hoop, a medium hoop, and a ball gown hoop. To keep the skirt from flying up as she walks or dances, around three pounds of steel weights in little bags are sewn into the bottom—similar to what Kate Middleton and other glamorous royals use to avoid any wardrobe malfunctions when descending from helicopters or on windy days. “You wouldn’t even notice it,” Zuber said.
To dress the King, Zuber traveled great lengths—all the way to Jackson Heights, Queens. There she found Indian fabrics that, when manipulated and embroidered, could imitate the style of Thai fashions from the 19th century.
“The difficult thing about this particular project,” Zuber told me, “is that in Thailand at the time, a lot of the garments were lengths of fabric that wrapped in a certain way, and we can’t do that for stage [for costume change and movement reasons], so we have to kind of create garments that have that appearance, that seem effortlessly wrapped or put together.”
That effortless effect is also a huge part of the children’s costumes. At the Vanity Fair photo shoot, Zuber noticed that the children were squirming around (as kids do), so she transformed their two-piece costumes into zippered onesies—beautifully embroidered silk pajamas. The children who don’t have long hair wear wigs of little topknots, with gold crowns imported from Thailand that had to be broken, re-assembled, painted, and glued for the show. And if the kids accidentally tear or rip something, there’s a staff stitcher on set during the show to repair anything that comes up.
Then there are wrapped dresses for the side wives, and those ruined tunics for the paupers. To get that perfectly distressed look, they get washed several times in OxiClean and various other products, and then are bleached, sanded, painted. “As a designer, I always say, ‘Is this sociology or is it artistic?’ ” said Zuber. “You are being asked to not do what is realistic, but you’re asked to reinterpret reality, or come up with something that is surreal and has nothing to do with reality. Both of those challenges are really exciting.”
The King of Mongkut
The ruler of Siam who has progressive ideas for his country but struggles with desire to uphold Siamese tradition.
A young widow from Wales who has agreed to a position teaching in the royal palace of the King of Siam. she is strong-willed and forward thinking and challenges the King's views and ways of ruling.
Anna's teenage son.
Lun Tha and Tuptim
A young man from Burma who is studying the King's temple and is secretly in a relationship with Tuptim.
A young woman from Burma who is presented to the King as a gift from the Prince of Burma; she is in love with Lun Tha.
The Prime Minister of Siam; the King's most trusted and powerful advisor.
Concubines & Wives
Alack, Orton, Ramsay
Phra Alack: the King's secretary
Captain Orton: the British Captain of the Chow Phya, the ship that takes Anna and Louis from Singapore to Bangkok.
Sir Edward Ramsay: a British diplomat who Anna was romantically involved with in the past; he is an important player in the diplomatic game for friendship in Siam, and the King must win him over.