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Dressing up “The Hours” at the Met: vintage wallpaper and 90s Calvin Klein

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

But that was before he learned opera, like the 2002 film based on the same novel by Michael Cunningham, had pulled out all the stops to fill the lead roles: three women scattered across the 20th century whose fates seem united by a mysterious bond with “Mrs. Dalloway. In Joyce DiDonato, the Met found its Virginia; in Kelli O’Hara, its desperate mid-century housewife Laura Brown; and in Renée Fleming, its powerful book editor Manhattanite Clarissa Vaughan.

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

Although he “loved it when he came out”, Mr. Pye, 54, had scrupulously avoided the film, which received an Oscar nomination for costume design from Ann Roth.

“It can be really distracting, if you’re trying to design and find your own image for everything,” he said.

In a recent interview, he explained his take on the three women at the heart of “The Hours.”

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

“In the book, it’s very ‘one chapter, one chapter, one chapter,'” Mr Pye said, referring to the episodic structure of Mr Cunningham’s novel. “In the film, they play a little more, and it’s five times more.”

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

“So I was very, very clear – or, I’m trying to be very, very clear – in the color palettes and the worlds of costume and set design,” Mr. Pye said, “so you know you’re in the world of Virginia, you know you’re in the world of Laura, so that even if the singer does not fit exactly into her world, her color palette follows her, and she can be free on stage to be a little more complex.

To create a cohesive palette that would follow Virginia throughout the performance, Mr Pye turned to the Bloomsbury Group, an informal collective of thinkers and artists, so named for the bohemian district of London that many of they were calling home.

The real Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, belonged to the group, which had “a really specific palette”, Mr Pye said, pointing to the work of Bell and Duncan Grant, a fellow painter she took over. on a farm in Sussex called Charleston. “You see these kind of tertiary colors – mustards and burnt oranges and olive greens.”

If audiences are meant to associate Virginia with fall and earth – “natural pigments that you think could be made from natural products”, as Mr Pye put it – the character of Laura occupies a completely different corner of the color wheel.

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

For Laura’s palette, Mr. Pye drew inspiration from Technicolor in an effort to project post-war optimism. “These aren’t normal colors,” he said, instead comparing them to 1950s Cadillacs and restaurants.

To dress the character of Clarissa, a professional woman living in Manhattan at the turn of the last century, Mr. Pye drew inspiration from his own memories of the late 1990s, including some of his early New York theater jobs. He was mostly doing sets at the time, he recalls, which at the time meant lots of glass walls, glass boxes and “reclaimed everything”.

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

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

According to Mr. Pye, the sensibility of the 1990s was defined by an instinct for sobriety: “’Let’s strip everything, let’s go 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 functions as a kind of monochrome barrier between the more colorful worlds of Virginia (left) and Laura (right). For Mr. Pye, there was something satisfying about the overall visual effect.

“There’s a purity to it and a modernity to it,” he said.

The famous first line of “Mrs. Dalloway”, the historical novel by Virginia Woolf which forms the the witty backbone of “The Hours”, contains a clue to the opera’s characteristic motif: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Clarissa also starts her day with a visit to a florist, where she buys roses (herself). Seizing on this common thread, Mr Pye spied the opportunity to ensure that the rose theme “echoes and rebounds through the decades”.

“Laura and Virginia are wearing pink prints, but I wanted them to be complete opposites,” he said. To create the pattern for Virginia and Laura’s dresses, he turned to wallpaper, not textiles, from their eras. For Virginia, he found two promising options, both from the 1920s, in a Smithsonian digital archive.

“I liked the roses on one and the background on the other, so I put them together and changed each color,” Mr Pye said. The result is a bespoke printed fabric that, while not vintage in the traditional sense, is nonetheless “very, very 20s” in spirit. In contrast to the “pretty tight, very decorative” flowers in Virginia’s dress, Laura’s “very 50s” pattern was adapted from a Sanderson wallpaper and features large, vibrant roses.

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

The drop-waisted silk dress that Mr. Pye created for Virginia would have been a familiar style in the 1920s, with a relaxed feel befitting a woman living and writing in the countryside. “I wanted it to be smooth and have movement,” he said, adding that “the Bloomsbury group was all artists, so it didn’t want to feel too structured.”

There’s a certain post-war extravagance to Laura’s look: with the privations of war largely a memory, a woman like Laura could enjoy a skirt that was full for fullness’s sake. “Suddenly it’s, ‘Let’s use five times as much fabric as we need to make a skirt, just to enjoy the opulence of this,'” Mr Pye said.

The pinched waist and voluminous skirt of Laura’s house dress recall an hourglass silhouette pioneered by Christian Dior: “It was that famous Dior dress — the white jacket and the big flared skirt — that was really radical after the 1940s, and after the war. Suddenly, we return to something more optimistic.

For Clarissa, every detail seems to communicate poise and confidence—the rolled-up sleeves, the functional pockets on her skirt.

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

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

“It feels stronger,” he said.

nytimes Gt

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