Hair in Central Park

Threads from the '60s, beyond birthday suits

''You're writing about the costumes in Hair?" a friend with a long memory snorts. "Aren't they all naked?"

I have just returned from the first preview of Hair in Central Park, and I can report that no, not all of them are unclothed, at least not most of time. But sure, some of the cast is briefly bare-assed, I think, though I'm not 100 percent positive since the stage lights are low and staring at naked flesh in public makes me blush and hide my face. But more on this earth-shattering subject later.

I always enjoy going to the Delacorte Theater in the park, even if I'm not exactly the world's biggest Shakespeare fan. (I mean, King Lear? Could you not just die of boredom?) So I arrive early and excited—I love revivals! I love musicals! I love the '60s!—and here is what I see: a woman of a certain age in a garish minidress and a lime-green plastic peace sign around her neck; a guy who looks like Farmer Gray with a headband and a rucksack; two young ladies in psychedelic-print ankle-grazers. Are these audience members dressed this way in honor of the play—or is this how they always look?

As far as the show itself goes, since I am not at liberty to actually review it—because 1) I am not a critic (see Shakespeare confession above), and 2) This is the first night of previews, which, due to the fascinatingly strict laws in Theaterland, means it isn't open for review yet—I can only tell you this: There's nothing better than sitting outside on a toasty night and listening to songs you know every word of.

It's easy to imagine how shocking Hair was back in the day, with its liberal employment of the word "fuck" (an utterance never, ever heard in polite—or practically any—company, believe it or not.) And then, of course, there were those abundant tangled tresses, which men hadn't sported for 100 years. I'm not too thrilled that most of the female characters whine a lot about boyfriends while the guys have tons of fun—good thing I'm not reviewing! But I have absolutely no reservations about the clothes.

What a piece of work these clothes are, so infinite and moving. Hair unleashes the complete cavalcade of delicious '60s follies: patchwork velvet, flag capes, Indian prints, peasant dresses, lavish fringe, tie-dye, bell bottoms, and a proliferation of peace symbols, one of which is exactly like the sterling-silver pendant I custom-ordered from a jeweler in Massapequa Park, my wretched hometown, so many years ago. Where did all these glorious threads come from?

The next day, I sit down with the show's costume designer, Michael McDonald, an affable 44-year-old—he was four when the curtain went up on the inaugural production of Hair at Joe Papp's Public Theater. "How did you manage to incorporate practically every iconic style of the 1960s? I mean, you don't actually remember any of these clothes, right?" I ask him as we settle in to chat in the lobby of the Public.

"I do remember them a little bit," he says. "When I was five or six, my uncle was a hippie. We lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I do have a recollection of my father—he had a big peace sign on his Cadillac—driving us to the park to look at the hippies."

McDonald confirms something that I have long suspected: Studying fashion-history books is often not the best way to learn about how people actually looked in the past. So what was his primary research tool? "YouTube." Turns out that lots of people made home movies of the Monterey Pop Festival, the 1968 Chicago riots, backstage at Woodstock, etc. "Those 8mm films! Oh my God, I could sit at my computer and watch them forever."

McDonald didn't bother creating most of the clothes from scratch (with a few notable exceptions—the fringed Tarzan loincloth was made by leather genius David Samuel Menkes) because, he says, "Things copied never quite feel the same." Instead, he combed thrift shops for the items he needed, a more eclectic roster of styles than the repertoire featured in the 1967 production. "In the original show, the clothes were very East Village–centric—mostly jeans and T-shirts. The thing that's different about my clothes is that I have tried to encapsulate a generation: the way people dressed in New York, Southern California, San Francisco, London. Mother Earth, Sgt. Pepper, Western wear, flowers, Victorian—all these vibes mushed together like a tribe.''

A lot of his best finds were uncovered during what McDonald describes as "a weekend of crazy shopping" in the secondhand stores of Austin, Texas. (Confirming once again what everyone always tells me: For great vintage, you have to leave New York.) He plumbed other sources: The serape in the be-in scene was found on eBay; the spectacular purple kimono worn by the actress who opens the show with "Aquarius" is from Kimono Lily in Brooklyn. A jean jacket was found at What Goes Around Comes Around in Soho; what McDonald refers to as the "Abby Hoffman flag shirt" produced a eureka moment in Texas. Some items came from his own personal archive (OK, his mom's attic): His fringe vest now adorns one of the musicians—it's too fragile for a cast member. But his favorite story concerns the Stars and Stripes cape: McDonald found it in the storerooms of the Public, where it had been languishing since Hair's 1967 run.

All of the jeans are new, though they have been convincingly beaten up and patched. "You can't use vintage pants," McDonald explains. "Even sturdy ones fall apart—they split open. One girl blew out her pants last night in Act I." (How did I miss this?) Lucky for her, a pile of replacements is always at the ready offstage.

So, Michael, does everyone get naked in the nude scenes? "Only three girls don't strip down—they're practically all nude!" McDonald replies. "The cast wanted to get nude. 'What's the point of doing it if we're not nude?' they told me. 'We want to get nude!' "

As we talk, the cast members—now more or less fully clothed—are drifting in for the afternoon rehearsal (there's the guy who plays Claude! And isn't that Sheila?). When I comment on how Hair-ish the cast looks even when they're out of costume—like everyone else in America, and the world, they're mostly wearing jeans—McDonald says: "Hair gave you permission to do that, to be free." But he hastens to add that hippie fashion represented "a different kind of comfortable. While the clothes were very simple, they made much more of a personal statement, a little more eccentric. A lot of it was just ordinary clothing people did things to—cutting them up, adding broken beads from a necklace to the bottom of jeans—just to make things different, like you were saying, 'I'm not gonna wear these jeans the way you want me to wear them!' "

But it isn't just the clothes that have McDonald's abiding admiration. "Things had to get so bad in this country for people to see the poignancy of this show. There's a reason it's taken 40 years—we had to wait for the right time. I've been very moved to be respectful of a generation I find has been dismissed out of embarrassment. We owe a great deal to them."

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