Costumizing The Hours at the Met: vintage wallpaper and ’90s Calvin Klein

When British designer Tom Pye first joined the creative team on The Hours, a new opera by Kevin Puts which premiered at the Met on Tuesday, it was all about the sets.

But that was before he learned that the opera, like the 2002 film inspired by the same Michael Cunningham novel, had pulled out all the stops when it came to casting the lead roles: three women who over the 20 mysterious connection to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” In Joyce DiDonato, the Met found its Virginia; in Kelli O’Hara, desperate mid-century housewife Laura Brown; and in Renée Fleming, her high-profile Manhattan book editor, Clarissa Vaughan.

“When I heard the castings, I was like, ‘I’ll do the costumes, too,'” said Mr. Pye.

Though he “loved it when it came out,” Mister. Pie, 54, had scrupulously avoided the film, which received an Oscar nomination for Ann Roth’s costume design.

“It can be really distracting when you’re trying to frame and create your own image for everything,” he said.

In a recent interview, he explained his vision for the three women at the heart of The Hours.

In adapting Mr. Cunningham’s sprawling, multi-generational stage story, one goal quickly became clear: to help audiences keep track of who’s doing what where — and in what decade.

“It’s very ‘a chapter, a chapter, a chapter’ in the book,” Mr Pye said, referring to the episodic structure of Mr Cunningham’s novel. “They get to act a little bit more in the film, and that’s about five times as much.”

Knowing that there are often multiple characters singing on stage at the same time, Mr. Pye wants to be “as simple and direct” as possible.

“So I’ve made myself very, very clear – or I am to attempt to put it very, very clearly – in the color palettes and the worlds of the costumes and the sets,” said Mr. Pye said, “So you know you’re in Virginia’s world, you know you’re in Laura’s world, so that even if the singer is not exactly in her world, her color palette follows her and she is free to be a bit more complex on stage.”

To create a coherent palette that would follow Virginia throughout the performance, Mr. Pye looked to the Bloomsbury group, an informal collective of thinkers and artists named for the bohemian London neighborhood many of them called home.

The real Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, were among the group who had “a really specific palette,” Mr. Pye said, pointing to the work of Bell and Duncan Grant, a fellow painter she worked with in a farmhouse in Sussex called Charleston. “You see these kind of tertiary colors – mustard and burnt orange and olive green.”

If audiences are supposed to associate Virginia with the autumnal and earthbound — “natural pigments that you think could be made from natural products,” as Mr. Pye put it — the character of Laura occupies an entirely different wedge of the color wheel.

“There’s nothing natural happening,” he said.

For Laura’s palette, Mr. Pye took inspiration from Technicolor to convey post-war optimism. “These aren’t normal colors,” he said, instead comparing them to 1950s Cadillacs and Diners. “They’re all pretty much man-made — the opposite of Virginia.”

To outfit the character of Clarissa, a working woman living in Manhattan at the end of the last century, Mr. Pye drew on his own memories of the late 1990s, including some of his first New York theater jobs. He was mainly doing sets back then, he recalled, which meant lots of glass walls, glass boxes and “everything reclaimed” back then.

“Everything we did back then was minimalism,” he said. “There were a lot of empty stages.”

“I looked at Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and all the great designers that were working back then and it’s so minimalist in the color palettes,” Mr. Py added.

According to Mr. Pye, the 1990s sensibility was defined by an instinct to strip down: “‘Let’s pull everything back, let’s keep it as simple as possible,'” he said. “So that’s what I did with Clarissa.”

Dressed in white and often standing in front of a plain wall, Clarissa often acts as a sort of monochrome barrier between the more colorful worlds of Virginia (stage left) and Laura (stage right). Two Mr. Pye, there was something satisfying about the overall visual effect.

“There’s a purity in that and a modernity in that,” he said.

The famous opening line of “Mrs. Dalloway”, Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel, which The spiritual backbone of “The Hours” contains a reference to the opera’s signature motif: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Clarissa also starts her day with a trip to a flower shop where she buys (herself) roses. Picking up on this unifying thread, Mr. Pye spied an opportunity to “replay and skip the decades” on the theme of roses.

“Both Laura and Virginia wear rose prints, but I wanted them to have completely opposite endings,” he said. To create the pattern on Virginia’s and Laura’s dresses, he turned to wallpaper rather than textiles of their time. For Virginia, he found two promising options in a Smithsonian digital archive, both from the 1920s.

“I liked the roses on one and the background on the other, so I pulled them together and changed every single color,” Mr. Pye said. The result is a custom printed fabric that, while not vintage in the traditional sense, is still “very, very 1920’s” in spirit. In contrast to the “rather tight, very Deco” floral patterns of Virginia’s dress, Laura’s own “very ’50s” pattern was adapted from Sanderson wallpaper and features large, tangy roses.

The three women of “The Hours” are also distinguished by the silhouettes of their costumes – no two are the same and each a reflection of their decade.

The dropped-waist Mr. Pye silk dress created for Virginia would have been a familiar style in the 1920s, with a relaxed feel befitting a woman who lives and writes in the country. “I wanted it to be soft and have movement,” he said, adding, “The Bloomsbury group was all artists, so I didn’t want it to feel too textured.”

Laura’s appearance has a certain post-war extravagance: since the war hardships were largely a memory, a woman like Laura could delight in a skirt that was full for the sake of fullness. “Suddenly it’s like, ‘Let’s use five times the fabric we need for a skirt just to enjoy the opulence of it,'” said Mr. Pye.

The cinched waist and voluminous skirt of Laura’s housedress are reminiscent of an hourglass silhouette pioneered by Christian Dior: “It was that famous Dior dress — the white jacket and the big, full skirt — that was really radical post-’40s, and after the war. Suddenly we are returning to something more optimistic.”

For Clarissa, every detail seems to convey lightness and confidence – the rolled up sleeves, the functional pockets of her skirt.

“There’s certainly a bit of that ’80s power dressing that would have carried over into the ’90s, especially for a woman of her status,” Mr. Pye said.

In early conceptions of the character’s costume, Clarissa wore pants. But Ms. Fleming wasn’t keen on the idea, Mr. Pye said, and it was ultimately dismissed as a bit too on the nose.

“It feels stronger,” he said.

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