The Colorful Costumes of West Side Story

West Side Story is a 1957 Broadway Musical that has overcome the boundaries of time with its music, choreography, and extraordinary characters. It was first directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Later on, in 1961 it was adapted as a Musical Film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. This film adaptation broadened the spectrum of West Side Story to become what we know of it today. As a result of this wonderful masterpiece, Steven Spielberg (Director) and Tony Kushner (Screenwriter) reimagined a version of this love story, giving it a fresh, heartfelt and authentic perspective. 

This version of West Side Story portrays a much accurate reality of Latinx living in New York in the 1950’s. Steven Spielberg’s goal was to create a film that was true to the Latin culture, respect it and embrace it. At the end it will translate better to the audience and tell a more accurate story. In addition to all the magic and anticipation of the film, Spielberg paired up with some of the most talented people from the industry. Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, was in charge of bringing to life these beloved, troublesome and passionate characters through the costumes. He has shown his extraordinary work in Broadway Musicals like HamiltonIn The Heights, and Summer. His work on this film has given him his first nomination to the Academy Awards for Best Costume Design. 

The overall look of the film is dirty and gritty, which translates into being real and authentic. This was Steven Spielberg’s main focus and Paul was mindful about these essentials and reflected them through the costumes flawlessly. To achieve this, he had to be accurate to time period and social status of all the characters. Colour was his main focus when it came to differentiate The Jets from The Sharks in an organic way.

The Jets vs. The Sharks

The Jets have a punk style with hues of blues, greens and greys. Denim being the most dominant textile gave the entire gang these opaque hues and worn-out feeling. The use of plaids, stripes, and printed tees are very common among The Jets. On the other hand, The Sharks carry a vibrant energy with red, orange, yellow and brown colors. With the Latin vibe, we see The Sharks wearing different prints on their shirts, such as paisley or floral motifs. For Paul, picking the colors for each of the characters goes beyond being part of one group or the other. He specifically chooses each colour according to the personality, skin color, age and performance in each scene. He achieved this in such an organic way that you could tell where each character belonged without being the typical red vs. blue stereotype.

However, this colour code varies a little in case of Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). They didn’t really belong to any group, but because of their nationality, society established them as part of The Jets or The Sharks. For them, love should conquer above hate, so, their wardrobe includes mixture of both groups. Maria’s costumes include two blue dresses and Tony’s include brown and beige pieces.  

Playing with Colors in “Dance at the Gym”

The overall look of this musical number “Dance at the Gym” is spectacular. The number of dancers, the playfulness of colours on screen, and the entire harmony created with the music, choreography, set and costumes is out of this world. The use of blues and reds for The Jets and Sharks respectively makes the whole scene an extraordinary masterpiece. The A-line silhouette of the women and the beautifully tailored pants of the gentlemen are not only accurate with the time period, but very accurate to their social status and age. 

Keeping Maria in a white dress for “Dance at the Gym” was accurate and clever. The idea came from the original Broadway show, and it worked impeccably. 

“The first choice that Steven requested for Maria was that she appear in an iconic white dress for ‘Dance at the Gym’”. – Paul Tazewell in West Side Story: The Making of The Steven Spielberg Film (2021) by Laurent Bouzereau

Maria had to look innocent, lovely, fresh and bright for the first time she met Tony. The compliment of this costume is a red belt that Anita lends her. This gives that little glimpse of belonging to The Sharks, while complementing her silhouette in a gorgeous way. On the other hand, Tony is wearing beige pants, a dark navy mottled jacket, brown leather belt and a stripped blue tie. A little combination of both groups of hues that make him blend in an organic manner. 

Anita (Ariana DeBose) is the only character wearing a full black dress at this dance. Paul shared on ‘West Side Story: The Making of The Steven Spielberg Film Book’ that he “wanted for it to cut a very strong silhouette against the sea of color within the gym. The surprise is when you see that her petticoat is red, suggesting her internal fire and exuberance”.

Anita is a dressmaker, and above that a bold, elegant and passionate woman. These qualities are represented on her entire wardrobe, which would have been eventually designed and sewn by the character. Both Anita and Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee), as the girlfriends of the leads wear the top fashions from the era. To achieve this, Paul took inspiration from Elizabeth Taylor for Anita and Marylin Monroe for Graziella.

The New Legacy of “America”

“America” is simply extraordinary. Firstly due to the amazing choreography, sets and the colours that pop across the screen through the rhythm of music. And secondly also because of the way it portrays the reality of Latinx living in the USA. The entire vibe of the scene is very energetic and powerful. At the end of the number, love unites them all.

The intricacies that Paul Tazewell had to take into account for the dancers to perform are certainly something where he has proven expertise and talent. In the process of finding a character and bringing it to life, Paul works closely with the actors. As a designer his work comes to life when the actor is comfortable and connected with the costume, and vice versa. So, he is always very careful to provide the performers with the best tools and options to achieve a flawless result. 

Anita’s marigold dress was a challenge for Paul Tazewell, but it turned out to be absolutely stunning. He was against the costume that Rita Moreno (Anita in West Side Story, 1961) wore on that rooftop while singing and dancing to “America”. Her purple dress was fabulous, and is still a staple from that musical film. However, Paul demonstrated again his talent by coming up with Anita’s (now iconic) dress. This costume certainly glues the entire aesthetic of the music number. 

Valentina’s Addition to the Film

Valentina’s character was a new addition to this film, and it was created specifically to be played by Rita Moreno. Rita Moreno made her biggest debut as Anita is West Side Story 1961. She was the only Puerto Rican from the cast at that time and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In this new West Side Story, such an amazing woman had to be a part of it. She has certainly been an inspiration for the Latinx culture and will continue to be. 

In this film, Valentina is Doc’s widow and a Puerto Rican. Doc (played by Art Smith in the 1957 Broadway and Ned Glass in the 1961 film) was the owner of the drugstore in the neighborhood. However, this time around, it made more sense to have a woman play this role, and running the drugstore. Valentina’s character is very bold and fearless. She married a “gringo” probably around the 1930’s, which was an incredibly powerful thing to do. Her costumes reflect her full of life, and at the same time ahead of time. She also wears hues of blue and floral prints that give her a sensible and motherly tone. 

“I originally designed mostly dresses for her, and one suggestion that Rita made was that she should wear trousers in her first scene with Tony, to make her appear more active.” – Paul Tazewell in West Side Story: The Making of The Steven Spielberg Film (2021) by Laurent Bouzereau

Paul Tazewell brought such an intimacy to the film that made everything work to perfection. Within a turnaround of six months, his talented team ended up building all the costumes for the principal cast and supporting ensemble. Working on a project of this magnitude only proves the versatility and outstanding professional that Paul Tazewell is, and the great people he works with. Every single costume was done at such a level of perfection that this Academy Award Nomination sums it all up. Congratulations to Paul Tazewell and his wardrobe team. He has certainly designed a new face to these beloved characters that will remain with us forever. West Side Story is now a fresh and passionate romantic musical thanks to all the people that made it happen.


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