“When it comes to historical accuracy, I am the last of the big pains in the neck,” said Ann Roth, standing before five mannequins at the Eric Winterling costume studio, in New York. Roth is the costume designer of Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which riffs on a popular ’20s musical revue; the headless women in front of her were dressed in gold-and-orange period-correct underwear, complete with subtle black-lace accents along the bust and diaperlike button closures at the crotch.
At 84, Roth has the vitality and enthusiasm of an opinionated teenager. She was dressed completely in black, which contrasted vividly with her brightly colored inventions—the startling underwear, drop-waist day dresses, embroidered cocoon coats, fanciful five-foot headdresses, and shimmering beaded gowns—all of which were in various stages of creation. The show, which opens April 28 on Broadway, stars, among others, Tony winners Audra McDonald and Billy Porter and is a celebration of the exuberant jazz scene that came to define New York just before the Great Depression. “When they offered me the job, I said, ‘I hope you realize that in 1921, there were no flappers!’ ” Roth exclaimed as she showed off a shawl with intricate floral embroidery that was partially bedazzled (and would make any French couturier envious). “Instead, I’ve imagined what a group of girls in Harlem, in 1921, would wear if they put on their very best clothes and came downtown for an audition.”
A stickler for evoking period and mood through costumes, Roth, who won an Oscar for The English Patient and whose diverse résumé also includes the musical The Book of Mormon and iconic films like Midnight Cowboy and Klute, spent six months just researching the fabrics for Shuffle Along. “Look at this,” she said, fingering a stiff cotton that caused a tutu to puff just so. “This is tarlatan. Zelda Fitzgerald wore it. I found a woman in England who still manufactures the fabric the same way they did in the ’20s.” Even without a person in it, the dress brought to mind a snappy showgirl. “Of course, we’ll have to knock this down to make it less pristine.” After making the perfect garment, Roth always beats it up in order to give it a lived-in, vintage feel. “Everything needs to have that lingering sense of age. The trick is to make the clothes both spectacular and believable.”