Costume designer Enrico Sabbatini likes to tell the story of Tony Lo Bianco, who plays a monk in next month's television mini-series "Marco Polo." "He was uncertain how he was going to play this monk," says Sabbatini. "So I began to dress him from his bare bottom up, starting with 13th-century monk's underwear, then long johns of the period, a cassock of white wool, and, finally, a great woolen black cape and wide-brimmed hat. He walked around a bit to get the feel of the clothes, muttering about the underwear. Then he said, 'For the first time I feel like a monk.' "
Sabbatini creates a character through costume, including shoes, jewelry, makeup and hairstyle. Even underwear. For the four-night NBC show, he has designed the 4,000 costumes for the entire cast. More than 30 of the costumes, including the elaborate ceremonial robes and saddle of Kublai Khan, are on exhibit at the Textile Museum through April 17.
Sabbatini made several trips from his home in Rome to China, where he visited museums, read and talked to costume specialists. This gave him the historical background for the costumes he created to tell the story of the young Marco Polo, who joined his father, a Venetian merchant, and his uncle on a 20-year journey across the world to the court of China's Kublai Khan.
"The 13th century was difficult to study because it was still in the Dark Ages when books were banned and fell into disuse," says the designer, here for the exhibit. "And the Chinese prefer not to recall that they were once dominated by the Mongols of Genghis and Kublai Khan."
Sabbatini used 90,000 feet of Chinese cashmere and silk, 60,000 of cotton, more than 1,000 furs, and jade and semi-precious stones to create a costume extravaganza out of Marco Polo's travels from Italy to Persia, Turkey, the Holy Land, India, Tibet, China and Mongolia. Most of the costumes were handmade in Italy, with the embroideries done in China. Jade was hand-carved for the Mongol belts and the sword handle and breastplate of Kublai Khan. One of Kublai Khan's costumes cost $7,000 because of its gold-flake embroidery. "It took several men a year to hand-hammer the brass armor," says Sabbatini. The 3,500 handmade shoes include delicate silk court slippers and Mongol boots of mountain goat fur.
"I expected to find the Chinese costumes all very similar, but I was wrong," says Sabbatini, pointing to the different styles of mourning dress of the Yu an dynasty women and the Sung dynasty in the exhibit. And fluffing the robe of a Mongol nomad woman, he adds, "See. She has all of her jewels in her hair or on her mantle. Unlike the noblewomen, she had no box for leaving her things at home."
The 48-year-old Sabbatini, who has made costumes for La Scala and such recent films as "Bloodline" and "Christ Stopped at Eboli," makes a distinction between re-creating the clothes of the period and making exact duplicates. "I am not making someone's exact copy. I want to be the Christian Dior of the period," he says. "I study the story line, keep everything in my head about that period, and then I put in part of myself."
Some changes from the original costumes for Marco Polo were made for visual reasons, Sabbatini says. The women of Tabriz actually used the hair of a horse's tail to cover their faces as required at the time. But "it made them look too much like fencers' masks, so I made face covers of woven leather," he says. A replica 13th-century Chinese woman's head covering was so binding, Sabbatini was convinced it was improperly made. "I looked in museums, I looked in books. And I finally found, in an actual garment from an excavation, how the hat was made."
Sabbatini admits he was most fearful of the costumes for the sequences in Italy. "It was a period already familiar in bad Italian films," he says. "Models were already spoiled. I had to go back to reality again and find the right way to make that period." He believes he's set a new standard. "I won my battle. Venetian costumes of that period will be made my way now."
He says his clothes for crowd scenes may be even more important than those for the lead roles played by Ken Marshall, John Gielgud, John Houseman, Anne Bancroft, Burt Lancaster and Yink Ruocheng, one of China's great film actors. "An actor brings his acting skill to the role. But an individual in the crowd grows in his role from nothing. They are not actors. They have to feel it much more, feel it in the dress. Even the socks of rough silk. They are made without shape and they lace on the leg. Such little difficulties affect the way one moves."
Far more difficult than doing the costumes for a cast of thousands, says Sabbatini, is creating just one costume--a housecoat and nightgown for Sophia Loren, as the frumpy housewife in the television film "A Special Day." "It had to capture her totally in that one costume. I had to keep the meaning of her character." Loren's reaction to the costume was, Sabbatini says, "It makes me feel like her."
Sabbatini is not impressed with the work of fashion designers in Milan today. "They make clothes only for teen-agers. When a woman is 30 and dresses in Giorgio Armani or Gianni Versace, she looks like a stupid, funny doll. They don't think of the psychology of the person or who will put it on."
He is not sure if his designs for "Marco Polo" will have the influence on everyday fashion already apparent with "Brideshead Revisited." He's been asked to spin-off a line of clothes from his "Marco Polo" designs, and he points to some in the exhibit: a boy's tunic, the mantle of a Persian nobleman, a Venetian nobleman's hood and crusaders' costumes that could be worn by women today. "The best clothes of women are captured from what men have worn earlier," he says. "In every single century, the best styles of women come from the styles of men."