OKLAHOMA! Fact #7: Costumes by Montgomery Ward

OKLAHOMA! Fact #7: Costumes by Montgomery Ward
Oklahoma! Costume Photo.png

When pondering a sample of the titles offered during the 1942-1943 Broadway season, it seems that each show can be neatly fit into either one of two categories: “Serious Theatre” or “Popular Entertainment”. Sure, exceptions to that rule (such as Show Boat in 1927) do exist, but they are ultimately few and far between. Why, just one day prior to the opening of Oklahoma!, Broadway saw the debut of new drama titled The Family. The play was based on a novel whose plot centers on an exiled Russian family living in China. And if you think that evening sounds dreary, then you’d be right. The critic for the New York Times’ said the evening, “…provides one of those agonizing occasions found in the theatre only when the play is just not good enough.” The whole affair sounds dreadfully serious without once considering that the audience might like to be entertained. And we needn’t look too far after that precise moment to find a perfect example of the reverse scenario: entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Just the day after Oklahoma! opened marked the premiere of the 1943 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. This edition of the Follies aimed to appeal to the audience’s jingoistic wartime virtues by declaring itself, “A national institution glorifying the American girl.” (Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld had little to do with the production; he’d already been dead 11 years.)

All of this is to say: audiences had expectations. Aside from the like-minded team who delivered a concept musical told in three dream sequences called Lady in the Dark (1941), few theatre professionals were trying to blend shows with smarts and shows with legs. Today, we know Oklahoma! as the quintessential “Musical Comedy.” However, in order to describe this new experience, the Theatre Guild first billed their show as, “A New Musical Play.” 

One man in particular who felt the burden of those expectations was Oklahoma! costume designer Miles White. By 1943, the gifted 27-year old had already amassed an impressive resume. Having costumed three shows on Broadway, White was a Guild favorite after his work on their burlesque comedy production of The Pirate (which happened to star the Lunts). Producer Teresa Helburn was, “…impressed by the brilliant color and flair…” in his work. So were the critics. The New York Times raved that White’s costumes were, “…the most gorgeous seen along Broadway.” White’s two shows before that were Best Foot Forward in 1941 (featuring June Allyson) and Right This Way in 1938, which was harpooned by the Times, although White’s costumes were spared. The bulk of White’s work was comprised of shows so slight that if you blew on one it might break into a million pieces.

And then came Oklahoma! For this show, long lines of chorus girls showing their legs would hardly be appropriate. This was to be a naturalistic telling of life on the farm. As is so rarely the case in a musical, modesty prevailed:

“I borrowed a 1904-5 Montgomery Ward catalogue from Dazian’s— that was the fabric house where Emil Friedlander supplied us with all the various materials. When I went through those pages I found out exactly how the people dressed in that period, both men and women— it was all there, even the hats. And I knew that even if they didn’t buy them, or couldn’t afford those outfits in the catalogue, people in Oklahoma would copy them… so that’s where I got all my ‘inspiration.’”

Still, White refused to let the entire evening be sullied by floor length skirts. Agnes de Mille gave him the perfect opportunity in her dream ballet. Miles White went on record with the New York Times to say that his favorite in Oklahoma! were the ballet’s can-can girls. The trio of floozies wore sequined bodices that gave way to a gem-toned ruff. On their legs were either striped, polka-dotted, or harlequin patterned tights. High heeled boots laced up their calves. On their head: enough feathers to make a peacock’s eyes turn green.

And it’s no wonder he liked those costumes the best; it was the only opportunity he had to flex his flash. Other than that, he’d have to get those particular kicks from the other production he was designing that season— that same aforementioned edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. Thankfully, there were endless amounts of tinsel and spangles to keep him happy over there. (But, can you believe it? The same 27-year old costume designer opened Oklahoma! and The Ziegfeld Follies not just in the same week— but one day after the next!)

Still, what White originally delivered proved that he had not yet shaken his fixation with flare. Ensemble member Bambi Linn fondly recalled the company’s initial dress parade: “All the boys came out in their yellow, pink, and blue shirts, and the costume people had spent days hand embroidering circles into polka dots— these weren’t printed on, mind you, but they were sewn! So out came the cowboys all polka-dotted, and they had chaps on, and boots on, they had big hats, they had gloves with fringes on, I mean, they looked like typical Hollywood cowboys!”

Choreographer Agnes de Mille hated what she saw. Along with co-conspirator/producer Theresa Helburn, she quickly got to work stripping away anything she deemed extraneous. The polka dots were the first to go. And then the chaps— except for Alfred Drake as Curly so he would stand out from the crowd. And then she went after all the fringe. Then the high-heeled boots were tossed in favor of something in which the men could actually dance.

When the girls came out, it was a similar story. Terry Helburn pleaded with Miles White for simplicity. The girls had been dolled up in too many flowers and shawls. When Helburn was finished, all she’d left behind were silhouettes and color. Meanwhile, in the perpetual battle of “smarts vs. legs”, another producer, Lawrence Langner, was overheard suggesting the dresses feature a lower cut neckline… without spoiling their “authenticity”, of course.

The team’s next foray into the advancement of the musical theatre was Carousel. Miles White had already learned his lesson the hard way. This time, he was prepared. “I knew they’d be after my costumes, cutting here and trimming there… so I purposely put all sorts of additional stuff on my costumes. And sure enough, when I’d go downstairs in the basement of the theatre, backstage, I’d find them by my racks, cutting away! But this time I was ready for them!”

By that time, Oklahoma! had been running for two years. Because of the likes of Miles White, audiences expectations had begun to change; they were finally able to understand what it was possible for a musical to do.

Miles White (1914-2000)

Miles White (1914-2000)