When Flashdance opened in 1983, it inspired a generation to cut up their oversized sweatshirts and don leg warmers. Thirty years later, the look is iconic (see Sexy Flashdance Costume; see also American Apparel ads), and the movie that was first envisioned as a stage production by its writer is touring the nation as a musical. It plays at Mahalia Jackson Theater Feb. 26 through March 3. Here, Tony Award-nominated costume designer Paul Tazewell talks about '80s fashion and how he updated the Flashdance look without stripping it of its Spandexed essence.
Flashdance The Musical takes place in 1983, but the costumes seem very modern. How did you update the costume design while staying true to the period?
It was important to reflect the early 1980s, but (director) Sergio (Trujillo) didn't want to be beholden to styling that was, to our modern eye, less than sexy and elegant. It starts to become a spoof of 1980s fashion when you put shoulder pads and big hair in front of the audience. It was not about trying to modernize the clothing, it was making choices that would keep you in the world of the 1980s.
How did you approach looks that have become iconic, like the gray oversized sweatshirt?
It became very important to hold onto images we collectively remembered from the film. Flashdance created a huge stir and fashion inspiration. From that point on, things were reflective of the fashion in Flashdance. Its styles were drawn from the street, and then they became much more global as an '80s look. It was very important to honor that, the oversized necklines, leg warmers. ... That kind of fashion styling needed to be acknowledged within the design of this current production, or you weren't being reflective of the 1980s.
What exactly was going on with fashion in 1983?
Ron and Nancy Reagan in the White House set a tone that tended to be very conservative: long skirts, white tights, flats. There was the strength and masculinity of shoulder pads. Everything was oversized, and it's one of the first time the labels were important. What was hot on the street was going against that: using the oversized sweatshirt, but cutting it apart and recreating what the establishment was. And Flashdance takes place in Pittsburgh, a city that has its own style, where you've got street dancers. It's breakdancing on the street in nylon running suits against ballerinas in dance institutions. So setting that polarity up was very important.
Is the musical substantially different from the film?
You're not going to see the film when you go to see the musical. The way it has been reinterpreted fills in more holes about what makes Alex (the main character) operate ... as she goes through her journey. Creating a new musical and figuring out what makes it work is very exciting — how do we make this the strongest telling of the story? And to me, the clothing is exciting because you make judgments about the characters before they have even said anything. The way they have dressed themselves gives you clues. Unspoken information comes out of the clothing, and that's why I find this job really exciting.