The Costumes of Hamilton: How An 18th Century Silhouette Tells a Story

Hamilton, Broadway’s 2015 boundary-crossing musical phenomenon, with 11 Tony Awards, 1 Pulitzer Prize, and 1 Grammy Award, is a cultural and theatrical revolution. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, and directed by Thomas Kail, it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of The United States of America. With some elements being hip-hop, R&B, and soul, as well as a cast that breaks cultural stereotypes but maintaining an 18th-century design, this musical is causing great impact throughout the globe. Miranda was inspired to write it after reading Hamilton’s biography by Ron Chernow, and that Hip-Hop was the only way to tell the story.

“America then, as told by America now”

Lin Manuel Miranda 

From left to right: Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, Lin Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette and Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan, at the back: Hamilton’s ensemble.

Photo by Theo Wargo – Getty Images

The play starts with Hamilton arriving in New York as an immigrant, and slowly rising to the top. By getting involved in politics, becoming the first secretary of the Treasury, fighting battles with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, marrying Eliza Schuyler, and giving it all for his country until his death. What makes this play so outstanding and acclaimed is the way Lin Manuel Miranda is able to merge modern and period elements and tell Hamilton’s story using rap as a language of revolution.

“The entire crew had one only goal: make Hamilton the best production EVER”, shared Paul Tazewell, the brilliant costume designer of the musical. Tazewell has designed costumes for theatre, film, tv, dance, and opera. Among these, he has designed costumes for Broadway more than a dozen times. Throughout his career, he has worked in various African American and Latino productions. Some of them being: In The Heights, The Color Purple, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Harriet. Paul has always been characterized by delivering a flawless job, where the importance of character interpretation, period research, and attention to detail is present in every single piece he makes. Hamilton, being one of his more acclaimed pieces, gave him a Tony Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Costume Design.

“I think basic theatregoers realize when a costume is sparkly and glamorous, and they realize when it’s wrong. But if it’s right, then it should get out of the way. It shouldn’t go away, but it should get out of the way so you can be in the moment and experience this world” – Paul Tazewell

Right: Paul Tazewell posing in front of his costumes for Hamilton. Photo by Yvonne Albinowski for Observer

As mentioned above, Hamilton is telling history, and therefore, real paintings and illustrations of the characters are already in the audience’s head. But on the other hand, we are living in a critical moment where art is transforming the way people see the world, and people need to change urgently. So, Miranda and Tazewell took this opportunity to tell history in their own way, which ended up being a total success.

During the creation of any period costume, research plays a critical role. This will not only define fabrics and colors used during that time period, but also shape, silhouette, and the evolution of garments through a certain timespan. In Hamilton, the storyline takes place from the 1780s to 1810, approximately, which is a beautiful period full of colorful and elegant costumes. As time goes by, costumes transform throughout the musical from frock coats to tailcoats, and from ballgowns to regency dresses. One of the few things that Lin Manuel Miranda asked Paul for Alexander Hamilton’s costume was that he be represented in green, because “green is the color of money” and it worked perfectly for the first secretary of the Treasury.

All of these elements present in Tazewell’s designs; not only tell the story and represent each character but also merge that modern and period vision that Miranda proposed from the beginning.

Paul Tazewell shared the research process involved in “Designing Hamilton”, an interview done by the National Arts Club earlier this month. He told the audience that he started taking reference paintings from the period to understand what people wore and how they wore it. Then, he looked at different inspirations from the modern world taking elements from the past and transforming them. This included paintings from artists like Kehinde Wiley and photoshoots of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

A very critical step during his process was the moment when he decided to define the silhouette and color palette for each of the characters. To do this, he dressed the whole cast in 18th-century silhouettes using costumes from several productions. This helped him “merge all the ideas visually and hold the cast together as a group”, he said. Besides being as accurate to the period as he wanted, Paul had to think that the ensemble needed comfort to make certain movements, at the same time had quick changes that needed to be made, and last but not least, visuals had to be very precise for the audience to understand what was going on. These three elements will make period accuracy change a little bit, but at the end of the day, the costumes worked absolutely perfect for the musical and the cast.

Due to the extreme detail and care required, every single costume was custom made by master tailors and seamstresses, which is evident in the flawless work delivered. Also, since this musical was going to be filmed (now available on Disney +), every detail had to be impeccable, or else, what people in the audience wouldn’t notice, the rest of the world watching through their screens, would.

One of Paul’s (and the audience’s) favorite costumes are the Schuyler sister’s costumes. These gowns have an accurate 18th-century silhouette known as robe a l’anglaise, which was identified by a stiff bodice, with a pointed waistline, low neckline, 3/4 length sleeves, and wide pleated skirt. The undergarments worn underneath were petticoats and a bump pad, which create volume in the skirt, chemise, and stays. The latter seems not to be part of the costume, since the most convenient idea for comfort (actresses never stop dancing and singing) was to have boned bodices, instead of a stiff pair of stays. The fabric used is also absolutely accurate, silk being the most popular fabric among high-class women and men during the 18th century. The colors for each one of the sisters show their personality and at the same time work together as a whole.

From left to right: 1. Lin Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Philippa Soo as Eliza Schuyler, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. Photo by Sara Krulwich for NY TImes 2. Philippa Soo as Eliza Schuyler, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus 3. 18th century costumes from the New Zealand Museum https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/50118

As a result, Tazewell’s contribution to the musical was a complete success. He interprets each character in accordance with the director’s point of view, he gives a little modern touch to each costume (not wearing wigs is one of the most notable and amazing decisions he made), and he respects the overall silhouette that 18th-century costumes have by also telling a story through the years it encompasses. By the end, Paul was able to dress the entire cast in period costumes, allowing them to dance, sing and rap as if they were performing in a 21st-century revolutionary bar. That, I call success. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to design it without everything that came before… All the productions I have done and the experience with period research and character interpretation came together to be able to make Hamilton”

Paul Tazewell

If you haven’t yet watched Hamilton, please go and do so! You are not going to regret it. Be prepared to have lots of fun, get very excited, heart broken, and last but not least, inspired.

Now Available on Disney +

To see more of Paul Tazewell’s work: https://www.paultazewelldesign.com

Other references:

Dress Historians discuss Hamilton’s Costumes (highly recommended if you are a period nerd, like me) :

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