For costume designer Paul Tazewell, the new West Side Story movie – directed by Steven Spielberg, out in theaters now – is a “full circle moment.” Back in high school, the Ohio native played Sergeant Krupke in a production of the famed musical. Tazewell said that his knowledge of both the 1961 film adaptation and the stage production didn’t make it any easier to create costumes for this year’s remake. He says, “That story is loved by so many.” “So that was the first difficult point: ‘How can I create a world to meet the expectations of my audience?”’
The “West Side Story” is a 1957 story that follows two New York City gangs, the European-American Jets (or the Puerto Rican Sharks), who are competing for Manhattan’s coveted neighborhood. A tragic incident leads to a deeper divide between the two groups. Caught in the middle of the feud are two young people in love – Maria (Rachel Zegler), who is Puerto Rican, and Tony (Ansel Elgort), who is Polish-American.
Tazewell used two color palettes to tell the story and highlight the rift. Tazewell says, “It goes back all the way to Romeo and Juliet when you’re setting-up Montagues and Capulets.” “I wanted that perspective with the Jets, the Sharks,” Tazewell says. In the photo above, the Jets are in the gym wearing blue, green, gray, and other colors. The Sharks contrast with their cool colors, wearing warm red, brown, and maroon hues.
In the film, the styling choices also reflected an individual’s identity. For example, the Jets wear blue jeans while the Sharks always wear neutral-toned slacks. That was Tazewell’s first choice, and it became the foundation for all the other costumes. He says that Denim is so well-known in America, that he thought it appropriate that the Jets mainly wear them. He chose to use black-and-white imagery of Manhattan from the 1950s and 60s for Sharks. For the film, he wore guayaberas (a men’s summer shirt with two vertical pleats) and polo shirts and high-waisted trousers.
The story of Maria, a young woman who came to terms with her sexuality and rivalry, is West Side Story. Maria is dressed in white lace for her first dance in New York City. As she is getting ready, Anita (Ariana deBose), comes in wearing a red belt around her waist, which Tazewell believes symbolizes Maria becoming a woman. Maria wears a maroon top and skirt combo, instead of the white as she rebels against her family. Tazewell says that Maria is realizing she has her own perspective. “She is maturing in her sense of style.”
Tazewell made reference to Irene Sharaff’s costume design work on the Broadway musical. However, he tried to modernize the original designs. Anita, then played by Rita Moreno, is the one who wears the most memorable piece in 1961’s film. She wears a purple, short-sleeved, full-length, tulle-ruffled, full-length, halter-necked, off-the shoulder sleeves, and bow details.
There is also the new character, Valentina (Moreno), which was added to the Spielberg remake. Valentina, a Puerto Rican wife, was married to Doc (a character in the original musical). He died before Valentina could inherit the drugstore that they owned. Tazewell and Moreno worked together to design Valentina’s outfit. The actress decided that Valentina should wear pants and not skirts. He says, “I think it was smart because she had taken on Doc’s pants, her husband.” “She needed that type of masculine grounding to counter all the boys who were coming into her space.”
Although remaking Broadway’s most beloved production may seem daunting, Tazewell claims he has come out of it with a better understanding of the story’s role in today’s climate. He says, “We are still struggling as Americans to figure out how we can live together.” “This film is very timely in that it shows moments of great joy as well as great pain. It’s representative of where we are.”