Learn about Swan Lake Costume Designer Paul Tazewell

Costume designer Paul Tazewell is at the top of his field. He has designed for all types of productions, from the silver screen to the opera, and he has received multiple prestigious awards for his work. Paul even designed costumes for PNB’s very own Swan Lake! Read on to learn more about Paul, his process, and his work for PNB.

About Paul Tazewell

Paul Tazewell was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Influenced by his mother, who practiced puppetry, Paul was attracted to theater and performance from a young age. To pursue those interests, he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where he could study fashion design and take advantage of the New York theater scene. However, he realized his interest in clothing was broader than what that fashion program offered, and he transferred to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ costume design program. Paul finished his formal education with a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. After working at the prestigious regional theater Arena Stage for most of the ‘90s, Paul’s first work on Broadway in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk garnered him national recognition. Now, Paul has received many awards, including an Emmy Award for The Wiz Live! and a Tony award for Hamilton. Recently, Paul was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the 2021 film West Side Story. Let’s dive into each of these prestigious works to learn more about Paul’s creative process. 

The Wiz Live! (2015) 

Working on The Wiz Live!, a live, televised performance of the 1975 Broadway musical, was a natural fit for Paul because he had prior experience; he had performed the title role and designed costumes for the show in high school! Fast-forward to 2015, Paul was designing for The Wiz Live! as a professional. These costumes were full of imaginative detail and show-stopping sculptural elements. In his words, “We’re creating a fantasyland that also is inspired by some of the imagery you’d see today… It’s the edgiest of high-fashion from now but in the world of the Emerald City.” While the costumes were fantastical, they also needed to be functional. The Wiz Live! was filmed in real-time, and the elaborate costumes and make-up had to handle quick changes just like ones for a stage production. As someone with deep roots in theater and dance, this was no problem for Paul, something you’ll see is a theme throughout his work. Another theme of Paul’s work is collaboration. Paul worked closely with the actors in The Wiz Live! so that their garments would reflect the unique elements that they each brought to their roles. Paul’s designs for The Wiz Live! were showstopping, and he was awarded an Emmy for the show. 

Take a deeper look at The Wiz Live! costumes here:

Hamilton (2015)

Most people are familiar with Hamilton, the hit musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired by hip-hop and show tunes. Paul worked with Lin-Manuel on In the Heights before Hamilton, and he was nominated for a Tony Award for that show. To begin the design process of Hamilton, Paul created a library of inspirational images, something he does frequently in his work. He chose some of John Trumbull’s 18th-century portraits, Kehinde Wiley’s satirical portraits, and the fashion designs of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Jean Pual Gautier. As you can imagine from Paul’s inspirational images, he was creating a look inspired by the 18th century while reflecting a contemporary view of the characters. He says, “In order [to] resonate as strongly as possible, I thought it was important to get beyond our preconceived notions of these iconic figures while honoring how Lin had brought the story to light.” To accomplish this, Paul decided that the characters (with the notable exception of King George) wouldn’t wear powdered wigs. Additionally, Paul focused on making the costumes comfortable for the actors by designing looks that they could inhabit like their favorite jeans and t-shirt. Paul’s designs highlighted Hamilton’s fresh, current feel in an innovative but understated way. His work acquired critical acclaim, including a Tony award for Best Costume Design of a Musical. 

Take a deeper look at the Hamilton costumes here:

West Side Story (2021)

Most recently, Paul designed the costumes for Steven Spielberg’s film West Side Story. For the film, Paul started with inspirational images, as usual. This time, he studied Gordon Park’s color images and Bruce Davidson’s photos of the 1950s Brooklyn street gangs. Paul’s costumes for West Side Story demonstrate the differences between the two rival gangs (the famous, finger-snapping Sharks and Jets) while remaining accurate to the time period. In the film, the Sharks wear bright, warm tones, and their clothing is polished and professional; it’s aspirational. On the other hand, the Jets wear cool tones and casual jeans and t-shirts. Their clothes demonstrate an ease, a lack of care. This can be interpreted as a comfort in their environment, as they are native to New York, as well as a lack of hope for a better life. When designing the costumes, Paul says, “It was important for me to be clear about who these two communities are, what their contrasts are, and how they relate to each other within their shared space.” Paul received multiple award nominations for his costume designs in West Side Story, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design; he is the first black man to receive such a nomination.

Take a deeper look at the West Side Story costumes here:

Designs for PNB

Paul also designed costumes for multiple PNB productions, including Seven Deadly Sins (2002) and an all-new production of Swan Lake (in honor of McCaw Hall’s opening, 2003). Baron von Rothbart’s billowing cape and Odette’s delicate feathered bodice remain highlights of that Swan Lake production. Each costume Paul created for Swan Lake was designed to last; for example, the “Swan” tutus Paul designed have been used over seventy times and are still stunning. In 2022, the costume shop created four new tutus and thirty new bodices to better fit the current company dancers. Now, PNB’s dancers will continue to wear Paul’s designs for many years to come.

Take a look at Paul Tazewell’s costume sketches for Swan Lake here:

You can see Paul’s designs on stage in Seattle at PNB’s next repertoire, Swan Lake, running February 2nd through 11th, 2024!