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Creating the Costumes of ‘West Side Story’: From Jeans You Can Dance In to Anita’s Flowing Dresses

Westside Story Costume Design
Sketches: Fox; West Side Story: Niko Tavernise/Fox

The Jets and the Sharks, the rival gangs at the center of Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” (in theaters now), battle over turf and bragging rights in a rapidly gentrifying sliver of 1950s Manhattan. Their conflict is fueled in part by racism and tribalism, as well as a mounting sense of economic insecurity. At times, tensions explode in knife fights and slugfests (all impeccably choreographed — this is a musical, after all). Their differences are also illustrated by the clothes they wear when attending dances or squaring off at rumbles.

For the Jets, the group of Caucasian “delinquents” run by Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Riff (Mike Faist), costume designer Paul Tazewell outfitted the gang members in denim jackets and jeans, preferring a “cooler” palette for their clothes. In the case of their rivals, the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang composed of recent transplants to New York, Tazewell chose clothes that were a little more formal and ones that frequently had floral prints.

“I wanted to show the contrast between the down-and-out Caucasian community, where they have a lot of home troubles, and the somewhat destitute Latinx community, which is much more aspirational and holding jobs and have this desire to make their lives better,” says Tazewell.

Then there are the women of “West Side Story,” namely Maria (Rachel Zegler), the shy sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), whose “Romeo and Juliet”- style romance with Tony sets off a series of tragic events; and Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo’s passionate lover. Tazewell outfitted Maria in white dresses to reflect her innocence but introduced elements of color as her romance with Tony blossoms. In the case of Anita, the designer turned for inspiration to screen sirens like Elizabeth Taylor to capture her vivaciousness.

Tazewell studied old clothing catalogs from Sears Roebuck to make sure that his designs were period-accurate, and also looked at photographs of New York gang life that were taken by Bruce Davidson during the decade in which the film is set. It was all part of his mandate from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to “create a world that is as naturalistic as possible given the genre of the film.”

Tazewell outfitted Maria in white dresses to reflect her innocence but introduced elements of color as her romance with Tony blossoms. Niko Tavernise

To that end, concessions had to be made to the dancing, leaping and twirling that takes place at regular intervals throughout the film. The jeans that Elgort and his crew wear, for instance, have elastic in them, and the dresses that Anita sports in numbers like “America” are not the kind you would find on a store rack.

“All of these clothes needed to be built so they could function the way they needed to for the choreography,” says Tazewell. “The dresses were engineered to open up so the dancers could move their bodies in the way they needed to be moved.”

Paul Tazewell’s concept art for his visions of Maria Paul Tazewell