Behind the 'Hair' dressing

The Baltimore Sun

Beehives. Pencil skirts. Tight sweaters. Eyeliner.

Skinny pants. Sharkskin suits. Banlon shirts. Florsheims.

It was 1960s Baltimore, and these were the looks - expertly captured in the latest film version of Hairspray, which premieres tonight at the Charles Theatre.

The fashions of the musical represent the silhouettes and styles of a well-known time period - the calm before the civil rights storm; the iconoclastic Jackie O years.

But Hairspray is set squarely in Honville; the movie is as much an ode to ole Bawlmer as it is a colorful commentary on differences and dancing and doing the right thing.

So fittingly, the fashions have a decidedly Baltimore flair.

"It's a little exaggerated," says Rita Ryack, the movie's Tony- and Oscar-nominated costume designer. "It's bigger hair, pointier shoes, a little more makeup. The skirts are maybe a little tighter."

Ryack scoured yearbooks and watched old episodes of The Buddy Deane Show - the real-life version of Hairspray's Corny Collins Show - to get a feel for how Baltimoreans dressed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"In 1962, everybody kind of dressed the same. The kids sort of dressed like the adults," she says. "But it was a very interesting time in America. [President John F.] Kennedy was still in office. It had so much intrigue, so much progress. We were really drifting toward a big change in fashion."

A personal touch

In making the costumes for the movie's key characters, Ryack wanted to stay true to the period as well as to original director John Waters' vision for the "nicest kids in town," and their parents and teachers.

But she also wanted to give Hairspray her own touches.

"It was an opportunity for me to go crazy. It's really my favorite time period," says Ryack, who says she was "lucky" to find plenty of vintage fabrics to work with. "I happen to be a little obsessed with the novelty prints of that time period. I love them. They're very witty and very unusual."

Ryack says she also was inspired, interestingly enough, by pictures of food in magazines and cookbooks from that period.

"I wanted it, as a musical, to look like a bakery window," she says. "There's something so distinctive about the colors."

For example, Ryack wanted blond and spoiled Amber (Brittany Snow) "to look like a cupcake all the time," she says.

And when Ryack dreamed up the color palette for the black teenagers in the movie, "all I could think of was baked beans," she says - which explains the preponderance of browns, reds and oranges on such characters as Seaweed (Elijah Kelley).

Ryack also kept in mind the subtle ways people of different races dressed back then.

"The black boys wore Chucks [Taylors], except when they were dressed up, and then they had very pointy shoes," Ryack says, "a little bit pointier and a little bit flashier than the white boys' were."

Such fashion statements weren't just Baltimore-centric. This was true across the country, Ryack says. Even in her hometown of Boston, white kids shopped in such places as Filene's, while many blacks shopped at smaller, community-based stores.

"It was very clearly demarcated," she says.

Baltimore style

Here in Baltimore, residents remember people having their own sense of style, different even from other urban centers.

"In Baltimore, sometimes we don't have the same fashion cachet as Philly or New York," says Helen Blumberg, 55, of Lutherville, who has seen the first Hairspray movie, released in 1988. "But, as in everything, Baltimore had its own scrappy identity. It was like, 'Hey! This is who we are, hon! And if you don't like it, you can go live somewhere else.'"

Blumberg, who grew up in Mount Washington, is proud, for example, of the "amazing" big hair many Baltimore women perfected.

"I remember, in Highlandtown and Hampden, you could have the women standing in a hurricane, and buildings would probably be blown away and their hair wouldn't move," says Blumberg, who manages the fiction and young adult department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. "It was almost like a status thing, how high and how big you got your hair."

Young women in Baltimore wanted their hair stiffer, their skirts slimmer and their sweaters ever tighter - a sore spot for many of their parents.

Growing up, Catherine Burch Jenkins, 57, of Sparks was forbidden by her parents to watch The Buddy Deane Show. But that didn't stop her and her siblings from stealing peeks at it - much the way Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) and Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) do.

"It was too outrageous and wild for us to see," says Jenkins, who is retired from heading up the art department at Notre Dame Preparatory School. "The outfits, the dancing, the diversity. Little did they know that we sneaked in viewings when we could without getting caught, to watch those sensationally dressed ... dancing teens we loved."

Jenkins is a huge fan of the earlier Hairspray film and is hesitant to see the latest one for fear it won't compare.

One way that director Adam Shankman's new Hairspray looks a little different from previous incarnations: John Travolta's Edna Turnblad.

"She's different from the other Ednas that we've seen," Ryack says. "That was generated by John, who really did not want to do the role as a drag queen at all. He wanted the audience to forget that he was a man playing a woman's role."

As a result, mother Turnblad is dressed throughout the movie in simple clothes - solid colors, no patterns, no feathers or floral, Ryack says.

Except, of course, during moments when Edna is feeling more confident, say in a pink sequined cocktail dress or a Tina Turner-inspired red-and-gold shimmy-shimmy dress at the film's end.

"That's when he just breaks out," Ryack says. "Or, she, I should say."

Ryack didn't have anything to do with transforming Travolta into a plus-sized woman; that was the job of a team of special effects artists, and hair and makeup specialists.

But she did have certain challenges when making clothes for Travolta, whose portrayal of Edna is more curvaceous than it is chunky.

"Believe me, he was full-figured," says Ryack. "The measurements were crazy big. He was wearing a waist-cincher, actually, and a real bra and everything."

Personality counts

Fashionable plus-sized women abound in Hairspray. Tracy doesn't shy away from plaids and pleated skirts, which were all the rage in the 1960s. And Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) revels in her glamorous get-ups.

But sometimes actors had to be dressed appropriately for the time - and their characters' personalities - as well.

Tracy often wears a white blouse, just as all the Tracys before her.

"The white blouse is really iconic," Ryack says. "It's pretty subtle, but as she gets a little more famous her blouses get a little rufflier."

Tracy's father, Wilbur Turnblad (Christopher Walken), is quite the jokester in the film.

"He works in the joke shop, so we wanted him to look funny," Ryack says. "But he's such a good-looking guy, it's not easy to dress him down. We had to put him in funny shirts and high-waisted pants."

And Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Velma von Tussle, was one of Ryack's favorites to dress.

"Michelle's character, she represents the old guard; she's the evil queen in her cocktail dresses at all times of the day," Ryack says. "How much fun was she to dress in those ridiculous cocktail dresses and jewelry no matter what!"

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