The Deep Meaning of Rachel Zegler’s White Maria Dress, According to Oscar-Nominated Costume Designer Paul Tazewell

After 60 years on the cinematic shelf, Steven Spielberg has brought West Side Story back on the big screen for a beautifully executed version of the beloved musical. Now that the film is among The 2022 Oscar nominationsincluding for the best pictureit’s time to take a closer look at the elements that make the film great, including Paul Tazewell’s incredible costume design.

Paul Tazewell’s work on costumes in the Broadway field is prolific, with In the heights, hamilton and NBCs Jesus Christ Superstar To live under his belt. West Side Story It’s the first time he’s done costumes for a film, and they deserve a closer look. The most iconic fashion moment of all has to be the return of Maria’s white dress from the 1961 version. While speaking with CinemaBlend, Tazewell explained why the production chose to keep a costume between the West Side Story movies pretty much the same. In his words:

Bernardo’s red shirt was one request and the other was that iconic white dress we remember from Maria [would remain the same as the original]. I think it was a smart choice because it helps create the beginning of the arc for Maria. The fact that he is white is representative of innocence and purity, the connection with the Catholic Church. It almost looks like a confirmation dress.

As Paul Tazewell shared, Steven Spielberg only had a few requests from his costume designer regarding his vision for the film, one of which included Maria’s dress being white again with the red sash. Here is the pair of Maria and Anita getting ready for the dance in the 1961 and 2021 versions:

Maria and Anita prepare for the dance in the films of 1961 and 2021

(Image credit: United Artists/20th Century Studios)

West Side StoryThe costumes are intentional and actually speak to the character’s journeys with the color palettes in particular. Paul Tazewell did something similar with the jackets worn by Alexander Hamilton in hamilton. With this film, he intended to give the Jets cool tones to wear, to express the native New Yorkers who are “emptied of color and hope in some ways”, while the Sharks, who are the immigrants from Latin countries, warmer colors, such as reds and yellows. Tazewell further developed Maria’s dress in particular:

Maria is this strong young woman who is ready to burst and explode in her maturity. So, with the addition of the red sash that Anita gives her from her outfit, it’s this entry into her femininity and her maturation as a woman in the story. It becomes a storytelling theme and I always love when the costumes can do that. Yes, they give you an idea of ​​the style, but they talk about what the character’s journey is and is going to be.

At the start of the film, just before Maria goes to the ball and meets the man she would fall in love with, namely Ansel Elgort’s Tony, she wears an innocent and more appropriate white dress. However, Ariana DeBose’s Anita adds her red sash to it, which, as the designer shared, means she became a woman that night.

Ariana DeBose as Anita adding a red sash to Maria's dress in West Side Story

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

It may seem like a small detail, but these are intentional elements of West Side Story like this one that make it one of the best-loved films of the past year. In front of 2022 Oscars Broadcast aired March 27 you can stream West Side Story on Disney+ and HBO Max now.

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