William Ivey Long

“It's unbelievable — winning the highest award given by your peers in the world of costuming for the theatre. It actually made me sit down when I heard,” says William Ivey Long, winner of the 2009 Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award. Founded in 1993, the Sharaff Awards are presented annually by TDF (Theatre Development Fund) to pay tribute to the art of costume design. The 2009 Awards will be presented in New York City on Friday, March 27.

“I knew Miss Sharaff,” continues Long, who was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2006. “She taught us so much; she trail-blazed. She stands for the highest standards in costume design. Just having your name adjacent to hers is heady stuff indeed. It was so exciting to see her in the costume shops, like Barbara Matera — that's how you learn. I was a sponge around her, soaking up her color sense and fabric sense.”

Long confesses that his parents were both theatre professionals from farming families in North Carolina. “I say they left the farm and joined the circus,” he says with a chuckle. “At first, I rebelled against it and got a degree in history from William and Mary.” Then he went to stay with family friend Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and that changed his life. He was soon enrolled in the MFA design program at the Yale School of Drama (he earned his MFA in 1975), and the rest is a career that has spanned four decades and been crowned with numerous awards and honors including five Tony Awards for Best Costume Design: Grey Gardens, 2007; Hairspray, 2003; The Producers, 2001; Crazy For You, 1992; and Nine, 1982.

When it comes to color, Long runs the gamut, from Guys and Dolls, which he refers to as “quite Technicolor,” to the current revival of Chicago, which he notes is “monochrome, almost all black and white, as is Pal Joey,” one of his current Broadway productions (the other is 9 to 5). “I paint with color and fabrics,” he explains, noting that he is always applying and appliquéing with color. He also always opts for natural fabrics, from silk, cotton, and wool to flax and rayon. “They survive dry cleaning better,” he insists. “You have to promise the producer that those costumes will last eight shows a week for a year.”

He also has done paper costumes, once for a ballet and once for a Pet Shop Boys MTV clip directed by Bruce Weber. “For the ballet, I had to make several dozen of each costume, as the ballet was performed for a week. They were basted or taped together,” he says.

Yet his serious work has been done on the Broadway stage, where he finds the most challenging element to be “interpreting the script and telling the story, or in a previously-owned vehicle, like a book or movie, to find your own voice,” he says. From dressing Anita Morris in Nine to the Tony Award-winning Christine Ebersole in the dual role of Big Edie and Little Edie in Grey Gardens, Long helps create the characters through clothing. “For Christine Ebersole, it was a joint effort to find the spirit of the two Beale ladies and balancing all the elements.”

On the other hand, Long's encounter with Morris was seismic. “Nine changed my life,” he says about the Fellini-based musical. “Working with Anita Morris, I grew up real quickly on that one. I developed muscles and stamina I didn't think I needed as a costume designer, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Nine really put me on the map.”