Suffs’ Tony-Nominated Costume Designer Paul Tazewell Knows How to Dress Up American History | Broadway Buzz

Paul Tazewell
(Photo by Sergio Villarini for Broadway.com)

Costume designer Paul Tazewell is a seasoned veteran of the Tony Awards, earning the ninth nomination of his career this season for his work on Shaina Taub’s historical musical Suffs. The piece follows Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists from 1912 through the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (with a brief foray into the 1970s)—a vastly different period than the late-18th-century era he captured to Tony-winning effect in his designs for Hamilton. Even so, there’s a sense of serendipity around Tazewell’s return to the realm of American history, which once again, has challenged the designer to finely balance period authenticity with modern theatricality. 

Emily Skinner as Alva Belmont in “Suffs”

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

“As a designer, I’m always looking at fashion and what is trending,” Tazewell shared with The Broadway Show during a backstage tour of his designs. “But when I’m exploring a specific year or period, I’m drawn to style that appeals to me and also aligning that with the character.” 

Research, naturally, comes first—and for many of the musical’s characters, archival photographs were at his fingertips. That well of imagery allowed him to capture particulars like famed socialite Alva Belmont’s affinity for fur and millinery (Emily Skinner is the actor who gets to flaunt her elegant fashions), with every detail down to the buttons carefully curated. “I’m telling you, this production is full of buttons,” he half-joked.  But fealty to history is no excuse for flabby storytelling. Rather than exact recreations, Tazewell’s goal as a designer was to find the place where historical accuracy, his own aesthetic sensibilities and his actors’ character work met. And the artistic liberties are anything but hidden. 

“There was actually a photograph of her on a white horse,” Tazewell noted, referring to Inez Milholland (played by Hannah Cruz), who majestically rode a white horse through the streets of Washington, D.C. during the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. In the musical, the image becomes inseparable from the character, with director Leigh Silverman both fashioning her own stage picture during “The March,” and having a giant projection of the photo stare out at audiences throughout intermission. “The photograph was what she actually wore,” said Tazewell while displaying the gold breastplate and Grecian crown Cruz wears on stage. “I took that idea and tried to raise it into more of a theatrical presentation. It gives you this quality of Joan of Arc or Athena.”  

By the time audiences leave the Music Box Theatre, Milholland has transformed from an unknown historical figure to a bona fide superhero. And as Tazewell learned from his last stint with the tales that built America, visionary storytelling can turn a lifeless piece of history into a cultural lightning bolt. 

Watch the full interview with Tazewell below. 

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