Rita Moreno’s lavender dancing dress for the gym mambo and rooftop “America” scenes in 1961’s West Side Story is iconic largely because of her lightning bolt of a performance (which snagged her the Academy Award for best supporting actress), but also because, like some of the best and most memorable costumes in film history, it’s surprisingly simple in its design and straightforward as to what it’s saying about the person wearing it.
In fact, we had some trouble coming to this one because despite costume designer Irene Sharaff’s legendary, Tony-nominated and Oscar-winning work on the costumes of both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of West Side Story, we weren’t sure we’d be able to divine much meaning out of the costume.
It seemed to us to be fairly straightforward in terms of what it was saying about the character of Anita and what was required of the dress in the scenes in which it was worn. But we’ve done enough of these costume readings to know that when we’re stumped, we need to pull back and start with the most obvious questions. First: What do we know about Anita?
We know she’s devoted to Bernardo. We know she disagrees with his gang activities and his lack of regard for America. We know that despite proclaiming her modern American point of view, she is distrusting of Americans and traditional in her thinking.
She doesn’t believe Maria should be dating a white man and she’s as firmly wedded to the idea of preventing Maria from dating at all as her brother is. She was devastated when she figured out that Maria slept with Tony. When Bernardo tries to use Anita’s attraction to him to win arguments, she waves him off or pushes him away (sometimes with difficulty).
Despite her pleas with Bernardo not to engage in Sharks activity, she is clearly as wedded to the group and tribal in her displays of that allegiance as any of the other members. Look at the way she looks at the Jets and their women. Sheer disdain.
And we know she’s a talented seamstress and dressmaker. It would seem likely that she made her own dress rather than purchasing it, which makes all of the design choices that much more deliberate and character-defining.
What do we know about the costume designer’s approach as a whole? Sharaff did not feel beholden to current styles, either high or low, and rather than look to actual gang members or urban teenagers, she took inspiration from the theatrical costumes of the Shakespearean era, deploying stocking-like skinny pants and doublet-like cropped jackets for the men, ruffles; flounces, bows and crinolines for the women in order to update the Romeo and Juliet origins of the characters to mid-Century New York without devising looks that would become dated within a few years.
She also dressed the Sharks in reds, purples and blacks and the Jets in blues, yellows and oranges to delineate their gangs and social circles.
Like all the Sharks and their women, Anita is dressed in their gang colors; with her light purple dress specifically serving as a visual female counterpart to Bernardo’s deep purple shirt. She is showing her allegiances to both her gang and her man. Of the five costumes she wears in the film, four of them are purple or have purple in them. She can proclaim her American girl status, but she’s still living the Sharks life and wearing the Sharks colors.
Now, what do we know about this dress? Well, it was clearly made for dancing by someone who knows her body well.
It’s relatively modest in style in comparison to the other women in her group. She is the only woman other than the deliberately virginally-costumed Maria who’s sporting sleeves.
Despite the relative simplicity of the bodice, she is sporting the largest, most exuberant skirt of the lot, with two telling details that indicate the precision of her dressmaking and the self-knowledge to express herself through it: a dropped contoured waist so well fitted to her body that we think it speaks to the idea that she made it herself, and a very subtle matching fringe that gives the dress movement even when she’s barely moving at all.
All of the women sport sleek bodices suitable for dance work, but the women of the Sharks tend to have fuller skirts, in a tip of a hat to the kinds of Puerto Rican folk dress styles Sharaff otherwise ignored in her designs.
Of that group, Anita’s skirt is the fullest; big enough and set low enough that she can pull the side as high as her shoulders while dancing and not be in danger of flashing anyone, matching crinolines with a contrasting hem to make them stand out all the more when she lifts her skirt. A dress for a dancer who’s also a dressmaker. A modern dress with traditional touches. A modest dress with exuberant details.
These are the contradictions of Anita’s character, represented in her dress: A sexy, bold and charismatic personality joyously announcing her modernity while masking a very traditional, somewhat modest young woman.
An American woman who wants to put behind grudges, embrace the new and get far away from gang activity, who nonetheless consistently wears their colors and shares their feelings about their enemies.
A good girl who likes to lift her skirt on the dance floor. A sensible girl who wears gang colors.
You don’t make a dress with those kinds of details for yourself unless you know your contradictions and you own them. What sets Anita apart from every other character in the story is that she’s the only one who isn’t delusional about what’s going on around her and what the likely outcome will be.
She’s in a system of social conventions she can’t reasonably escape. The best she can do, the only thing that makes sense to her, is to maintain a healthy level of self-knowledge and situational awareness.
And have as much fun as she can, while she can. It’s all in the dress.
[Photo Credit: United Artists – Stills: United Artists via Tom and Lorenzo]
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