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Colorful fashion sketch of a woman wearing a multi-colored dress
Detail of costume sketch, likely from "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Artist: Florence Klotz. Music Division; courtesy of Suzanne DeMarco.

Florence Klotz: Costume Design & Broadway History

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This is a guest post by Mark Eden Horowitz, a music specialist in the Music Division. It also appears in the March-April issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

The Library’s recently acquired collection of Florence Klotz costume designs are a visual celebration of the art, craft and range of her work.

Many of her shows feature dichotomies of harsh realities and glamorous fantasies, such as in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” where one goes from ragged prisoner garb to the celluloid fantasy of Aurora — the Spider Woman. But however gritty her costumes might get, Klotz undeniably had a magical way with baubles, bangles, beads, rhinestones, sequins, feathers and furs.

In her final show before retirement, the 1994 Broadway revival of “Show Boat” directed by Hal Prince, Klotz designed 585 costumes for 72 actors covering over 30 years of American history. She won her sixth Tony Award for the costumes, more than any previous costume designer.

The Library’s Florence Klotz Collection includes those designs, as well as those for “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “On the Twentieth Century,” “City of Angels,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and many others.

Unlike her costumes, Klotz’s career was not planned or designed; it evolved unexpectedly, as she described it, “mostly through luck.”

Half-lenth portrait of a man and woman in formal attire, with linked arms, walking into a room.
Stephen Sondheim and Florence Klotz. Photo: Unknown. Music Division; courtesy of Suzanne DeMarco. 

Her parents owned a millinery store, Klotz Brothers (her father named a cloth pattern after her: Florence plaid). She attended the Parsons School of Design but assumed that, after graduating, she would get married and have a family rather than a career. Instead, she and Ruth Mitchell — who began her career as a stage manager, then worked as an assistant to and ultimately co-producer with Prince — became life partners and a theatrical power couple.

In 1941, Klotz got a call from a friend asking if she would like to “paint some materials” at the Brooks Costume Company. Unbeknownst to Klotz, Brooks was the most famous costume company in the theater world. During and right after World War II, many materials were hard to come by so “ordinary materials were painted to look like whatever cloth was desired.” As it turned out, Klotz had a real knack for it.

One day in 1951, legendary designer Irene Sharaff approached Klotz, asking if she would assist her on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” For several years thereafter, Klotz worked as an assistant to virtually all the major designers of the day — Sharaff, Lucinda Ballard, Miles White, Raoul Pene Du Bois, Alvin Colt — on shows such as “Flower Drum Song,” “The Sound of Music,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Silk Stockings.” Ballard eventually nudged a reluctant Klotz into trying her hand as the designer, not an assistant, for shows.

The idea of designing costumes for a Broadway musical alone was daunting, but in 1961 Klotz dipped her toe in, designing the costumes for the Prince-produced, George Abbott-directed play “A Call on Krupin.” (Of course, it was not unusual in those days for a straight play to have a cast of 26.)

For the next few years, Klotz continued to assist on other designers’ shows while increasingly designing for plays on her own. In 1966, again working with Prince, she designed the costumes for her first Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman.” In 1970, she joined with Prince again on the first film for either: “Something for Everyone,” starring Angela Lansbury and Michael York.

Wardrobe sketch, showing a man in a light red tuxedo, with top hat and cane.
Klotz’s wardrobe sketch for a “Follies” character with a swatch of fabric attached at top right. Artist: Florence Klotz. Music Division, courtesy of Suzanne DeMarco.

But it was the next show that exceeded all expectations and where Klotz’s genius was widely recognized: the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies” — a show whose extraordinary, elaborate, clever and gorgeous costumes won Klotz not only accolades and adulation but also her first Tony AwardTwo more Prince/Sondheim collaborations swiftly followed: “A Little Night Music” (a romantic operetta set in turn-of-the-century Sweden) and “Pacific Overtures,” which tracked Western influence on Japan since the Perry expedition landed on Japanese shores in 1853. Klotz won Tonys for each.

Klotz went on to design costumes for Prince’s film of “A Little Night Music,” starring Elizabeth Taylor (with Klotz receiving an Academy Award nomination). Klotz designed the violet cashmere wedding dress for Taylor’s marriage to Sen. John Warner in 1976, and they would work together again in 1981 on the Broadway revival of “The Little Foxes.” When Klotz was awarded the Patricia Zipprodt Award for Innovative Costume Design in 2002, Taylor wrote her a letter to include in the program: “You’re the best, the funniest, the most talented. If only you could have controlled my boobs when I ran.”

Head-and shoulders shot of Klotz turned to look back over her right shoulder. She's wearing a white sleeveless top and her hair is pulled back.
Florence Klotz. Photo: Unknown. Music Division, courtesy of Suzanne DeMarco.

Klotz worked on 58 Broadway shows, as an assistant on 26 and the designer on 32. In addition, she designed for opera, ballet (particularly in association with Jerome Robbins) and even “Symphony on Ice” for John Curry, his attempt to legitimize ice dancing as an art form.

The Library’s Klotz Collection includes approximately 2,500 designs, plus hundreds of additional pages of correspondence, notes, photographs and other items. There also are over 40 “Show Bibles” — extraordinary volumes that track every aspect of every costume for a show by performer. The designs themselves range from quick pencil sketches to beautiful hand-painted renderings, often accompanied by fabric swatches and notes.

Looking through the collection, one’s eyes are drawn to the gorgeous designs as works of art. You realize that Klotz was, indeed, an artist.

Then you begin to realize other things, too. She had to be a historian, researching her designs to be appropriate to time, place and situation. She had to be expert in textiles, knowing how each fabric folds, flows, cuts, takes the light, lays, ages and lasts — and how it can be dyed, distressed, appliqued and embellished with sequins, bugle beads, feathers and fur.

She had to be intimate with every aspect of theater: how clothing reveals character (and helps an actor become a character); how it works with sets and props and under lights whose colors change; how costume changes must happen, often at speed, and what will work with dance choreography.

A colorful sketch of a showgirl wearing a risque costume, with a notecard and small cut of fabric attached.
A wardrobe sketch for a “Follies” showgirl includes an illustration of how the clothes will look onstage, a fabric swatch for the material and the costume measurements for the actress. Artist: Florence Klotz. Music Division, courtesy of Suzanne DeMarco.

She also had to be a budgeter, a business manager and a shop manager. The collection includes a three-page working budget for “Pacific Overtures” costumes. The budget has separate columns for materials and construction, using two different companies for the 65 or so costumes the show required. Judging by the document, Klotz apparently was able to negotiate $90,805 down to $81,850.

More than anything, one is awestruck by the extraordinary amount of work involved. Aside from the actual time fitting and constructing the costumes, the collection shows Klotz’s method: how she researched designs, began the design process, came up with significantly different versions of outfits (presumably for the director’s final choice) and created truly ravishing pen-and-ink and watercolor works of art representing them — works that not only show the costume but suggest how it moves, how it will be worn and the character of actor playing the part.

Klotz was a designer of both the conscious and the subconscious, the surface and the hidden. Fortunately, with her collection now at the Library, all is revealed.

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