All Gussied Up

Simply put, Gregory Gale's costumes for Goodspeed's “High Button Shoes” are stunning. In fact, as Gale is checking costumes in the opera house dressing rooms during a recent tech rehearsal, one of the actresses gives a delighted gasp when she sees the boots she'll be wearing, mint green and pink creations with buttons climbing up the fronts.

But these costumes aren't just things of beauty. They are things of character.

“It's a musical, but it's grounded to make you feel like they're real people wearing clothes — they're not caricatures wearing costumes,” Gale says. “That's the line of what I tend to like: as pushed as some of it will go, there's a base in reality, a base in character.”

Gale drew the shoes — high-button ones and otherwise — for the show, and a company named T.O. Dey, led by Gino Bifulco, hand-built them in New York.

Gale's assistants searched for the perfect material and accoutrements for the shoes. Colleen Kesterson was on the prowl for buckles, trim and leather (she can tell you that the blue leather for one pair is called mallard). Tracey Herman searched through shops for period shoe buttons; “I had to go through hundreds because half of them are broken, and they're mother of pearl and 80 years old,” she says.

Gale says, “The crazy thing is, I ended up designing the shoes before I knew what all the clothes were.”

“High Button Shoes” is the third show Gale has designed at Goodspeed, following “Pajama Game” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” He has long been designing costumes for shows on Broadway and beyond. He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his work on “The Wedding Singer” and for a Lucille Lortel Award for “Urinetown.”

Earlier this year, the 42-year-old was nominated for two more Lucille Lortels for outstanding costume design for his work on the off-Broadway productions of “The Voysey Inheritance” and “The Milliner.” He won for “Voysey.”

“I really like mixing it up. When I was working on 'The Voysey Inheritance' — it's the David Mamet adaptation — they said, 'What are you doing next?' and I said (here, he goes into a sunny voice), 'High Button Shoes at Goodspeed!' They were like, 'What?' 'Voysey' is dead serious, heavy, 1905, and they're all in mourning for a huge section of the play,” he says.

“High Button Shoes” is decidedly not serious. It's a high-spirited musical comedy about a conman named Harrison Floy who runs a scam on the unsuspecting Longstreet family.

It's set in 1913, which was the “vertical epic” epoch for clothing, a reaction to the flowy fullness of the turn of the century. There are more Grecian influences, and it's leaner and more linear.

The vision for any show starts with the director, and in this case, that is Greg Ganakas, whom Gale has worked with before. They discussed the script and the characters, and Gale did a great deal of research about the period, drawing on his large collection of period magazines and combing the Internet, which has become a convenient and major source of information on historical clothing.

“The more you put yourself into research and who these characters are, the better,” he says.

There are a multitude of things a costume designer considers even beyond that, such as the show's other creative elements. The set design for the Longstreet family's house, for instance, is cocoa and chocolate — rich brown tones, with a lot of color in the woodwork. When Floy comes to town, he's in shades of clear blue.

Gale says the family “should feel they're at home, so if they're in those brown, rusty, woodcut sort of colors, all of it is harmonious. Then it starts to break apart (after Floy arrives). Somehow, it's as if they were at home and then the world starts to change.”

He also had to make the costumes work for a musical, which, in some scenes, means something that is easy to dance in and that can be changed quickly offstage. For the show's famed Keystone Kops dance number, Gale has to make sure the actors have tap shoes and non-tap shoes, and the costumes have to allow them to do a fast change, hence the fact that what looks like a shirt and tie is really one piece, just a dickey, that rips away.

In another scene, the performers have to do a super-fast change. Women go into a beach tent wearing proper, pale promenade dresses, and then they pop back out literally seconds later in bathing suits. The dresses are all snap-rigged down the front so they can rip them off, and the women are wearing the bathing suits underneath.

Gale didn't start out as a costume designer. He earned two degrees in fashion advertising from the Fashion Institute of Technology and was working at a fashion magazine before he realized that what intrigued him was not the clothes, but rather the characters who were wearing the clothing.

“When we'd be shooting for the magazine, I was always thinking, 'What kind of person is this?' And I'd always been really excited by costumes. I watched a lot of film. I said, 'Greg, you should be designing costumes,' ” he says.

He took a job at a big costume shop in New York City. He met designers and began working as an assistant before going out on his own.

One thing he has learned since then is that, as a costume designer, sometimes there are surprises.

“When we were doing 'Urinetown,' there was no dancing. It was all musical staging,” he recalls.

Gale had to fly to L.A. and he remembers returning to New York and going into the rehearsal hall for some shoe fittings.

“I round the corner and am walking down the hallway on the way to the rehearsal hall, and I hear (here, he approximates the sound of lots of dancing feet) clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. I open the door, and they're doing a huge musical number, and I was like, 'Just so you know, nobody has dance shoes, and I don't want to hear it. They're wearing work boots, and that's going to be funny, but you're going to have to do it in work boots,' ” he says.

For “High Button Shoes,” one of the biggest creative challenges involved a certain plaid that Gale loved. It was a pair of jodhpurs from some previous, now forgotten production at Goodspeed, stashed away in the theater's costume shop. He loved the plaid for the leading man but needed pants, not jodhpurs. The good news was there were two pairs, so they could use the fabric from one to fill out the other. But the pants also had a crisscrossing windpane trim. Colleen Kesterson searched New York City for trim that would work. “This one's too wide, that one's too shiny ...” she recalls.

Gale says, “It was painstaking to find a trim that was similar. And then Colleen had to go and dye it in her own kitchen. The costume shop took (the pants), cut them down, and shaped them into a traditional pant leg shape because they were actually too full. They cut them off and added the other pant onto it and then put all the trim onto it so it all matched up. Crazy.”
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