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December 19, 2014

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Faaabulous! The crazy, ornate and award-winning costumes of ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’

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Christopher DeVargas

The changing room with the many intricate costumes for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” at The Venetian as seen Thursday, June 20, 2013.

'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' Costumes

Gillian Austin, wardrobe supervisor for the new Launch slideshow »

From its jubilant soundtrack to its flamboyant performers, the sensory overload doesn’t stop in Broadway’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which runs at the Venetian through Aug. 18.

The show’s biggest stars, however, are its costumes — hundreds of elaborate, over-the-top get-ups that make the outfits at last weekend’s Electric Daisy Carnival look business casual.

So it comes as little surprise that the designs by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner have nabbed “Priscilla” an Oscar on the big screen and a Tony onstage. With more than 500 complete costumes and more than 1,000 individual garment pieces and wigs, it takes two trucks (out of the production’s nine) just to ship it all from city to city.

"It's not normal tailoring, that’s for sure,” wardrobe supervisor Gillian Austin says of her job’s biggest challenge, explaining that upkeep of the custom shoes, technicolor tights and layered, hand-stitched dresses is a round-the-clock endeavor for the 12 wardrobe assistants and her. Due to the sheer volume of clothes, Austin hires someone in each city whose sole task is to do laundry.

With an endless array of details and hidden charms in each costume change — hidden Elvis drag in a funeral scene, a Barbie doll-emblazoned sport coat worn for just a few minutes in another — it’s literally the little things that make it worth it.

"The more you pay attention to the costumes, the more you notice,” she says. “I think that’s what makes it so great. You get so much out of it.”

    • Rubber duckies may float, but this “Gumby” hat — nicknamed for the wide legs and narrow hips of the costume it goes with — weighs about 10 pounds and is made from sliced-in-half ducks and plastic bubbles stitched and glued onto a plastic mesh form resting on a cap.

      “This is definitely one of the trickier ones to balance,” Austin says.

    • Hanging on the wardrobe racks, this dress looks like little more than an average, if not frilly, blue ballgown. During the musical, however, the actor reaches under to reveal a hand puppet hidden in its folds (wearing a matching dress, of course), with which he lip syncs throughout the number.

      If that wasn’t elaborate enough, the character starts the number in black spats, fake pant legs and a black rip-away coat over the dress, which are eventually torn away to reveal the fabulousness underneath.

      “It’s one of the craziest dresses we have in the show,” Austin says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.

    • “This is one of my favorites because no one knows it’s here,” Austin says of one of the show’s hidden gems. The coat is only worn for about three minutes onstage by the character Adam/Felicia, but its painstaking detail of miniature sequined headbands and sunglasses on each of the Barbies is proof of the designers’ commitment to each piece.

    • While not the show’s highest set of heels (that would be six-inch red patent leather platforms), these flipper heels are easily the most outlandish. Performers wear them along with bathing suits and swim caps during the big casino floor show.

      Navigating the stage in the heels, which Austin estimates took about six weeks to make, is an art unto itself. "They kind of just have to keep their toes up and waddle,” she says.

    • Worn by three flying characters dubbed "The Divas,” this two-piece outfit consists of a Swarovski crystal-spangled bodice and a glittering, voluminous silver skirt lined with lace to give the effect of floating on a cloud when they’re in the air.

      Each outfit features a slightly different kind of silver fabric and sequins, making each one unique.

      Austin says the dresses are among the most expensive in the show, estimating their cost at about $3,000 each.

    • Among the show’s most elaborate costumes — and that’s saying a lot — is the sweeping cockatoo dress pieced together from individual handmade “feathers” sewn from different tones and textures of white satin with sparkling thread and stitched onto the dress one at a time.

      "Because of the way the feathers were applied, if the girls lose weight or if we have to alter the dress in any way, there’s only one way to do it — from the back, which is a real pain in the butt for sewing,” Austin says.

    • During the song “Go West,” performers line the stage in coordinated cowboy outfits. Look closer, however, and hidden among them are the Village People, a nod to the song’s original performers. The number includes a cop, a construction worker and a Native American chief, who wears this delicate blue-and-silver headdress that hangs down 5 1/2 feet on each side.

    Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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