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The Tale of the Yellow Dress

William Ivey Long details the creation of a costume that really made Contact. logo
Boyd Gaines and Deborah Yates
in Contact.
It's the most famous costume of the year: the yellow dress designed by William Ivey Long for Deborah Yates to wear in the third dance playlet of the Tony-Award-winning Contact. Just a simple yellow dress with a gathered bodice, a couple of spaghetti straps, and a skirt that hugs the torso through the hips and then falls swingingly to just above the knees.

Doesn't look like much, does it? Just a few ounces of party frock that Long might have picked off the rack. Not a bit of it, though. According to the good-naturedly harried designer, getting the dress absolutely right took buckets of sweat, blood and tears. Literally.

The sweat was his and Yates'. The blood came from the dancers who had to lift Yates and realized that some of the fabrics used occasionally scratched them. The tears were director-choreographer Susan Stroman's as she watched the dress and the undergarment worn with it go through nine--count 'em, nine--versions until it all came right.

"Not so simple," says Long, a round-cheeked cherub with curly brown hair and spectacles, as he grabs a small model of the dress on a foot-high form. He's sitting at a worktable in the back of his shop on a quiet street in Chelsea, where sculptor Louise Bourgeois is a next-door neighbor. "Nine different creations," Long begins. "I'll tell you the parts that are known and unknown. Susan Stroman called me up and said in January, 1998, 'William I need a yellow dress.' She's doing a workshop at Lincoln Center. I said 'Oh, why yellow?' And she said, 'I'll tell you about it when you come and see what we're doing.' I went and saw them working, and she told the story that Andre [Bishop, the Lincoln Center impresario] commissioned her to do [a new show]. She went to this dance club, and out of the darkness came a girl in a yellow dress who totally took over the power of that dance floor. Susan never told me what the yellow dress looked like; she just said it was yellow, and it came into the light and then it went back."

That's when Long swung into action--only proper for a swing-dance piece--and took Deborah Yates to Barbara Matera's costume shop. Quickly overcoming Yates's reluctance to wear yellow because she is blonde, he started trying out different materials. "Just like you'd think in the movie of this story," he recalls, "I put various bolts of fabric next to her face until we found the combination of yellows that looked good on her. I then made it in chiffon. That's in the poster. You've seen the poster, with the girl jumping? Well, that didn't work, because the boy couldn't partner her. It all went up like this, and it was too floaty."

With chiffon deemed unworkable, Long then moved to net and jersey and who-knows-what until he found a "slinky" fabric called "cracked ice." Until he did, the dress continued to be problematic, ripping nightly in previews. In fact, finding just the right thing was so challenging that he didn't come up with the final dress until after the opening--made of the aforementioned slinky material, which he had previously used for the slip Bebe Neuwirth wears when she does Chicago. "It dances well," he says. "It does good [Bob] Fosse movement. So I thought it would do good Stroman movement. It has a weight to it."

The next step was deciding on the right length for the dress. Originally, Long went mid-thigh but kept adding inches until one day, before he had hemmed the latest model, Yates took a look at herself in the mirror. As long remembers it, she suddenly said, "That's it, that's it! This is the great length. Why didn't we think of this before? I feel like a woman. This gives me more power." And Long said, " 'Deborah, you're absolutely right.' "

So, that was the end of the setbacks, yes? No. Next, the visible panty line problem surfaced. When Yates, happy in the new material, bent over at the on-stage jukebox, the line of her undergarment could be seen. "Susan would call me up in tears," Long reports, "and say, 'William, all you see is this horrible line.'" Back to the drawing board. According to Long, "I missed the opening night of Epic Proportions, a show I did with Kristin Chenoweth, because I was shopping at Bloomingdale's for underwear. I found a special Donna Karan slimmer that was seamless. It looks like bicycle shorts. Everybody thinks Deborah's wearing bicycle shorts, but she's wearing a very lovely Donna Karan slimmer."

What about finding the right shade of yellow? The layers of chiffon Long started with, he comments, gave the effect of being "a warm lemon yellow and looked best on Deborah." Unfortunately, it washed out under the lights. After further experimentation, Long finally found what he calls "Green-y Goldenrod." And now, guess what? The color is so striking that a Manhattan textile company is currently offering customers "Contact Yellow" fabric. (Long knows, because the firm sent him a sample of it.)

"I've never had someone do something after a show," he says, holding a Contact Yellow swatch up and adding that "making a show can be dangerous to your health." He means that yellow-dress complications are still far from over. After all, there's maintenance. Right now Yates has four version of the dress she can alternately wear. "The cleaning process destroys clothes more than wearing them," Long emphasizes, "especially if you have to dry-clean something. Those fluids kill the fabric." And the eight-times-a-week wear-and-tear does take a toll. Not to mention the possibility of Yates's catching one of the three-inch heels of her Capezios--dyed "Green-y Goldenrod"--on the swinging skirt. Or the chance that one of her dance partners will rip the dress during a lift.

Long is currently represented on Broadway by seven shows: Contact, Cabaret, Chicago, Swing!, The Music Man, Annie Get Your Gun, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. That's a warehouseful of executed designs. Still, he muses on his show-stopping yellow dress and says, "I'm telling you, a lot of work goes into simple. Simple is hard."

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