Fashion owes a significant debt to playwright Tennessee Williams. He transformed a man's T-shirt into a metaphor for volatile, animal masculinity. He made a woman's full-length lace slip into an emblem of over-ripe femininity. And he transformed a chiffon dress into a symbol for faded Southern gentility. All of these garments are on display in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Kennedy Center. The play, starring Patricia Clarkson as Blanche DuBois and Adam Rothenberg as Stanley Kowalski, is part of "Tennessee Williams Explored," a festival celebrating the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
"Streetcar," the story of a Southern belle's broken spirit, is set in steamy New Orleans in 1947. The play reveals a brutish, angry Stanley in his sweaty undershirt, its thin fabric taut against his biceps. Blanche's disintegrating mental state is reflected in her fragile chiffon dresses and her pale slip with its delicate lace.
Here is proof that clothes have the capacity to convey emotion. The spare T-shirt is a gesture of barely contained machismo. It is sexy because of what it so poorly conceals. It is underwear brought into the light. A man has thrown off his civilized shirt and tie, he has shrugged off the constraints and the decorum of a suit. The undershirt worn alone suggests that a man's animal nature is set free and on the prowl. Isn't that why it has come to be associated with rebels, punks and hoodlums?
Blanche can be distracted and desperate just as surely as she is manipulative and aggressive. Her chiffon dresses and blouses suggest a brand of old-fashioned femininity that had not yet become a cliche. That sweet fabric with its naughty translucency hints that a woman is soft, delicate, sensual but with secrets only barely hidden. The fashion industry turns to chiffon when it wants to create dresses with a coy, teasing sex appeal. When designers are looking to evoke an old-world sensibility or when they're trying to portray gentility or ladylike reserve, their starting point is the chiffon dress.
The slips that so many of Williams's characters wear have left lasting memories. Blanche, Stella Kowalski and Maggie from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" -- which opens in June with Mary Stuart Masterson -- can all be seen in delicate wisps of satin and lace. This partial state of undress is now interpreted as code for adult sexuality -- titillating but reserved. The slip -- reworked by the contemporary fashion industry into the slipdress -- is shorthand for womanly sexuality overflowing the confines of such proper attire as trim jackets, pencil skirts and crisp cotton shifts. Seeing a woman in one of these full-length undergarments is akin to peeking through the keyhole of a closed bedroom door. One catches only a glimpse or an impression of the private seduction.
The Kennedy Center production of "Streetcar" marks veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood's third time dressing Blanche, Mitch, Stanley and Stella. With each production, says Greenwood, there are subtle changes to the wardrobe that reflect the nuances each actor brings to the role. Williams, she says, "was very interested in clothes. He always dressed very elegantly." And he would often indicate precise details about the character's attire. Stanley's T-shirt, for instance, was specified as red, Greenwood says.
While Blanche, the faded beauty, admits to a passion for clothes, most of hers would have been from the 1930s. They would be dated, but carefully maintained, as Blanche was a woman desperate to preserve appearances. It is Stella, in her crisp cotton dresses, Greenwood says, who is the more contemporary of the two women.
It can be a challenge to dress Williams's characters and remain true to the period because so much of what they wear has such resonance today. It is easy for their garments to fall victim to distracting flourishes or to be overly stylized and become Miuccia Prada's or Dolce & Gabbana's vision of the 1940s.
"Any period that you do, you look at through 2004 eyes, you're looking at from the sensibility of today," Greenwood says. "The romanticized version, you see that in fashion magazines. I look at the photos in Life magazine, the Walker Evans photos. There's a big difference between fashion designers and costume designers. Dress designers look forward and costume designers are looking back. . . . To be a good costume designer, you have to be a historian and researcher."
"If you compromise you lose the specificity and things wind up just looking old-timey," she says. "You've diminished the period."
Slips and chiffon -- and even a sweaty T-shirt -- have come to symbolize a certain kind of Southern woman and man. They are inexorably linked to the tormented characters created by the Mississippi-born Williams. The clothes help to express their volatile emotions. And they inspire a fashion industry always seeking to stir passion for its frocks.