Theoni V. Aldredge (1923-2011)

From Hamlet to La Cage aux Folles, one of New York's greatest costume designers

The costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge was, it seems, the perfect collaborator: People who worked with Theoni Aldredge once wanted to do so again; people who worked with her twice considered the arrangement permanent, and chose her repeatedly for their projects as a matter of course. If this suggests that Aldredge, who died on January 21, at the ripe age of 88, had no distinct artistic personality of her own, the suggestion is emphatically misleading. A strong-minded and strongly sensible woman who engaged in extended artistic partnerships with some of the most challenging figures in the New York theater, she simply knew how to create what they wanted by her own methods and from her own point of view. Often, she knew what they wanted better than they did themselves; her results proved it, which is why they came back time and again.


In a sense, Aldredge had two artistic personalities, as befitted a woman who was Greek by birth and upbringing (the “V” stands for Vachliotis), but American by choice and education. Her somber side nourished the stark, splendid costumes she created for decades of Shakespearean tragedies and histories in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater and downtown at the Public. At the same time, her gaudy, showy American side exulting in fantasies of affluence, came out in her extravagant designs for Broadway musicals. On the one hand, Hamlet, Richard III, Coriolanus—panoplies of distressed leather, rough-weave fabrics, dark hues. On the other, Anyone Can Whistle, Barnum, La Cage aux Folles, Dreamgirls, 42nd Street—festoons of spangles, hordes of pastels, clouds of diaphanous chiffon. A Chorus Line—one of the 80-odd shows she designed in her decades of work for and with Joseph Papp—encapsulated her dualism perfectly in its journey from a bare land of drab rehearsal clothes to an eye-blistering unison parade of gold lame top hats and tuxes.


In either realm, or anywhere along the wide spectrum that separates them, she regularly accomplished what every designer for the stage strives to do. Each costume made a complete statement for the character who wore it—a statement that came from within the role, not as a comment imposed on it—and each of these individual statements added a significant piece to the total picture. In this regard, it’s worth noting that Aldredge’s career was initially launched, not because directors and producers learned how well she could grasp the overall essence of a play, but because divas, beginning with Geraldine Page, discovered her gift for creating outfits that could fulfill, simultaneously, the two requirements a star demands from the work clothes in which he or she must tackle a difficult role eight times a week: her costumes could both feel comfortable and look glamorous.


Her understanding of glamour went well beyond the contemporary flash and dazzle of her musicals. The acute sense of the glamorous potential inherent in the past, which won her lush designs for The Great Gatsby a design Oscar, produced some of her most memorable creations when Papp ventured into comedy, particularly for A.J. Antoon’s Park production of Much Ado About Nothing and his Vivian Beaumont revival of Trelawney of the ‘Wells’, both ecstatic forays into early Edwardiana. She could delve into past periods more somberly, too, as she did in the Ruth Gordon–Lynn Redgrave Mrs. Warren’s Professionor the musical of The Secret Garden.


Many more shows could be cited: Designers, who can work on multiple productions while directors and actors must devote themselves to one at a time, tend to have long resumes. But Aldredge’s is special: Scanning its half-century roster of titles reveals her ongoing commitment, not only to the New York theater, and not only to her own vision of how she might enhance it, but to its people, to the artists who make the theater a meaningful place. Still married, at her death, to Tom Aldredge, the distinguished actor whom she had met when both were studying at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the 1950s, she was a partner by nature. More impressive than the recital of her numerous awards would be the list of those who always said, when the question arose, “I want to work with Theoni Aldredge.”

 
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