Legendary gay costume designer William Ivey Long has never tried to disguise his sexuality — neither among friends nor professional contacts. “Imagine that? I’m comfortable with who I am,” Long reports playfully. “It’s been my experience that so long as you do your job and pay your bills most people will accept you.”
Indeed the man does his job. Throughout his fabulously successful costume design career, Long has won five Tony Awards (and every other prize that Broadway and off-Broadway offer). His amazing body of work includes hit shows like “Grey Gardens,” “The Producers,” and “Hairspray.” The recent production of “9 to 5” marks his 58th Broadway show.
Long is busy at work designing for an upcoming Broadway production of “A Leap of Faith,” a musical adaption of the same-titled 1992 Steve Martin screen comedy about a fraudulent preacher.
“My studio [a loft in Lower Manhattan] is currently overflowing with photos of choir gowns and sheriff uniforms,” reports Long. “It’s when a designer thinks that they are most familiar with a certain look or period that they really need to take a closer look. Sorting through archival material is a huge part of what I do. Research and costume construction are everything.”
A native North Carolinian, Long grew up surrounded by theater. Both of his parents were theater educators. As a kid, Long designed his first costume – an Edwardian collar for his dog. At just eight, he appeared in a local historical production titled “The Lost Colony.”
Long graduated from William and Mary College with a degree in history, and then went on to study set design at the Yale School of Drama (where housemates included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver). Studying design under the exalted Ming Cho Lee was a period that Long remembers as “a magical time.”
Over the years, his way of designing costumes has changed.
“The scope has definitely broadened,” explains Long, 62. “As I’ve become more successful, I’ve been able to hire assistants. Also, I’ve become a destination for interns and summer job seekers. But that’s really the only way our business is passed down. It’s a guild, really, and that requires hands on learning for the next generation. And whether or not they adhere to my methods isn’t important, but it’s crucial for them to have this kind of experience.”
After graduating from Yale, Long felt rather at sea and woefully unprepared for a career in theater, so he set out to find his next mentor. Long moved to Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, that storied home to artists and bohemians, and began stalking famous couturier Charles James. Eventually, James agreed to an apprenticeship that lasted an intense three years. When his sartorial mentor died in 1978, Long returned to the theater, designing costumes for productions helmed by directors he’d first met as classmates at Yale.
“I’d dress the phonebook for the right director or choreographer,” adds Long. “Who is in charge really makes a difference in terms of inspiration and the overall experience. I’d count [Broadway’s] Jerry Zaks and Susan Stroman among my favorites.”
Long designed the chic black dress and mink so crucial to Valerie Harper’s portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped” that played at Arena Stage last summer. More recently, he designed costumes for the national tour of “Dream Girls.” Sadly, the D.C. run was recently canceled due to poor advance ticket sales. Local audiences will have the opportunity to see Long’s artistry up close once again in October when he costumes Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII.”
Long ascribes much of his success to a lifelong, slightly frantic energy level. After hurting his back last year jumping off the back of a car while performing grand marshal duties at a parade, Long lost 45 lbs at his doctor’s suggestion, and as a result is now more energetic than ever.
“Thank heavens they didn’t have Ritalin when I was a kid,” Long sighs. “They would have put me on it in a flash, and my career might never have happened.”