The King and Catherine Zuber

The King and I Costumes

Catherine Zuber has designed costumes for, among many productions, Lincoln Center’s 2006 staging of the trilogy The Coast of Utopia and the grape harvest festival Fetes des Vignerons in Switzerland in 1999, which required 6,000 creations, so quantity doesn’t really phase her. Still, the five-time Tony award-winner had a full plate in tackling the sartorial vision of The King and I, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and for which she picked up another Tony nomination last week. Besides the 250 pieces for the 50-plus strong cast, it was the fact that the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which tells the tale of a British woman and her son traveling to Asia to teach the King of Siam’s children English, is set in 19th century Siam “so other to what we know,” says Zuber, who delved into books and photographic research for authenticity. The Siamese tradition of wrapping all garments in intricate folds had to be translated into more structured looks (Zuber sourced many of her fabrics from India). On the flip side were Anna’s enormous hoop skirts and crinolines. “What I found interesting is I think the Siamese clothes are much more modern than the Western clothes,” says Zuber. Here, some highlights of Zuber’s gorgeous designs.


“The king at the time favored a lot of jackets that had a Western construction vocabulary. But he paired them with soft trousers, with fabric that would have just been wrapped around, but we couldn’t do that for the stage. And when we looked at the research, we saw there were lots of different kind of fabrications of embroidery and trims and texture, so it was a lot of experimentation to get that balance just right. This robe and jacket was also heavily painted, we really wanted to tone down that gold—it was a little bright [at first].”

Photo by Paul Kolnik


“This was made from Indian fabrics: the robe that he wears is from parts of a sari that we took apart and then reassembled. The part of the sari that was plain worked well for his jacket and then there are others that were overly embroidered. So it was a matter of figuring out what should go where. We had all the children in shades of purples and blues. Since he’s the main prince, we put him in a strong blue color, whereas the king is in gold and red. So the prince stands out, but is still part of the children’s palette.”

Photo by Paul Kolnik


“We really struggled with how to get the [man’s] trousers to move correctly. This wonderful draper at Parsons-Meares costume design came up with the idea of having them show the leg, but then they look like classical tights when he’s standing upright. We used a heavy weight crepe satin to give both looks gravity and drape and have them be sculptural. The bodices are a stretch base and then the sleeves are attached to that and the decorative element is layered on top because I always find it distracting when a dancer lifts their arms and the whole costume moves up with them. We also gave Eliza [the female character] trousers with a side apron instead of a long skirt—I thought it would be much more graceful and everyone seemed to feel they didn’t miss the skirt.”

Photo by Paul Kolnik


“We did a lot of tests with the right kind of fabrics that would reflect the light in a beautiful way and move well. We hit upon a changeable satin that has the weft and warp in two different colors, so that gives it that sheen and bounce. In a way, it’s not an overly complicated dress: it’s quite simple even though it’s a strong shape. I think of it more as a fluid sculpture. And all of the layers—the horsehair and hoop and crinoline—are tied together underneath. But it does have its own room backstage—it never goes into Kelli O’Hara’s dressing room. I think she’s happy not to have to look at it any more than she already does!”

Photo by Paul Kolnik


“I did some research on traveling costumes at the time for this one. It’s made of silk and linen. I think this is my favorite, actually. It really sums up the journey of Kelli and Anna’s character, what she’s been through and had to endure to put this dress on. She seems like a changed woman and I feel the dress is very different from the other dresses she’s worn which aren’t as simple or as strong a color. It’s a really emotional color.”

Photo by Paul Kolnik


“In those times, they didn’t really make a differentiation between male and female children [in terms of dress] until puberty. We had a photo shoot early on when the costumes were still composites and their shirts kept coming out of their pants and belts were coming undone, so I was like, ‘They need to be nailed down like a onesie with a zipper.’ They’re always tidy. And it took a while. During the first preview, it was like, ohhh, they were like an unmade bed. We got the crowns in Thailand and then we took things off, gold leafed them, put our own details on top. Only one has fallen off [in a performance]. I thought that was a pretty good [track record]!”

Photo by Paul Kolnik