Tony Award-Winning Costume Designer Never Expected Fame

Jamie Miles • Reporter

In 1994, Lizzy Gardiner gained attention by wearing a dress to the 67th Academy Awards made of American Express Cards. She and design partner Tim Chappel took home the Oscar that night for Best Costume Design for The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and this year, they won a Tony Award for the Broadway rendition. MORE gets an exclusive backstage look at Gardiner's award-winning creations, from cupcakes to classic drag -- and even gets some fashion advice from the visionary herself. Hint: Pay attention to those undergarments. An edited version of her interview with us follows.

MORE: Did you always know you wanted to be a costume designer?
LG: I always knew I wanted to be either a fashion designer or a costume designer so I just ended up doing both.

MORE: Where do you draw your inspiration from for these costumes?
LG: Anything from the ‘70s that was about disco and was crazy and wonderful and fun, Donna Summer, her afro hair, a show from my childhood about Gumbies, everything! Tim [Chappel] and I both have a really messed up sense of humor and we do find things obscure that are really funny that other people quite possibly don’t – it’s just a weird view of the world.

MORE: What would you say is the toughest thing about dressing men as women?
LG: They’re a treasure to dress up as women. It’s really fun… I guess the hardest thing is trying to make boobs look real because they always look hard and in the wrong place and everything. But dressing men as women is just really fun because men I think have a higher tolerance to pain, and so you can pull their waists in really tight and put them in really high shoes and they don’t care. I love it.

MORE: The audience has come to expect the ridiculous overkill of glitter, wigs, and heels… how do you repeatedly surprise the audience who already have expectations of extreme absurdity?
LG: In terms of this show and drag costumes, I think we include a whole lot of different things, including traditional drag—‘50s and ‘60s version of men dressed in high heels and feathers and then we go from that to cupcakes. So we do it all.

MORE: Do you prefer designing with a partner or alone?
LG: It depends. This show could not have been done by one person—it’s just not possible. There are too many costumes. And Tim and I have known each other a long time so designing with him on this show has been basically a brilliant experience, but normally you never really design on your own. You always have a department that has wonderful ideas. It’s always a collaboration.

MORE: Do you have a favorite costume from the show?
LG: My favorite moment for the costumes would be the cupcakes. It’s just a great moment in the show. It’s a great song. ‘MacArthur Park.’ The lyrics are hilarious, ‘Someone left a cake out in the rain.’ Who would even think to write that lyric? And on stage comes these cupcakes… human cupcakes. And the lead tears off his dressing gown and breaks out into a version of the song. You can feel the audience just gasp because it’s a combination of being completely insane, beautiful and just pure folly. So that’s a favorite.

MORE: Tell us about the famous flip-flop dress!
LG: When this dress was invented, it was a long time ago right, and thongs were not fashionable for anyone to wear. Not even white trash. Nothing. The worst thing you could do was get caught with your thongs on. So that’s why this dress was designed because it was really inappropriate. Then afterwards thongs became fashionable. I mean I don’t think it had anything to do with that dress but they became fashionable. So it’s kind of lost its edge for me a little… but at least they’re not Havaianas.

MORE: You’re known for wearing some unconventional things yourself! To the 1994 Oscars you wore a dress made up of 254 American Express cards. What motivated you to wear this and can you talk about where the proceeds went when it was eventually auctioned off?
LG: I guess what happened was during that time it was the beginning of the dress being more important than the film. The Academy Awards had stopped being about the films and it started being about who’s wearing what and I just thought that was kind of ludicrous. It was all about “What are you wearing?” Not “What’s the film, what’s this, what’s that?” And I kind of thought that was really inappropriate actually. I was being offered all these gowns to wear, and they’re all amazing and they’re all worth a fortune and I just kind of thought this is kind of sickening actually. So I’m just going to do something that’s really naughty and wear a dress made out of American Express cards because it sort of summed up the entire thing. And it was also a dress that we had been rejected from the film by American Express because they didn’t want to be involved in this low budget film about drag queens in the middle of the desert. Surprise. So that’s how it happened. I wore it and there was something like a four percent chance of us winning , so we had no chance of winning. So I thought I’d wear this dress, have some fun and go home but we won, and that was the crazy thing. So next you know I’m standing on stage wearing this dress and it was absolute madness. The dress is now owned by American Express and it does charities; It has it’s own life, it’s own passport, it’s own world. [Editor’s note: In 1996 the dress was auctioned off for $12,650 to raise funds for the American Foundation for AIDS Research]

MORE: How else can fashion make a positive impact?
LG: Someone has to do something about this red carpet thing. Someone has to turn that into something that has a little more meaning other than wearing a great dress on the red carpet. The amount of diamonds these people are wearing, the amount of money these people are wearing is a little sickening at times. There has to be a way this can be turned into a charity. So say someone is going to wear Chopin diamonds worth a million dollars then maybe Chopin could donate some money to a good cause or something. It just seems like the scales are just wrong it’s just not quite right for me. Everyone’s gaining something—these actresses are wearing these beautiful jewels and these beautiful dresses and obviously these companies are making a lot of money, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, so somewhere someone has to step in and say now we need to put this to a good cause too.

MORE: Do you have a personal style mantra?
LG: Wear a great necklace because you can get away with murder if you do. I have so many I don’t even know where to start. Buy a beautiful piece of jewelry because you can all of a sudden turn an average kind of outfit into something that looks great. You can wear this with a pair of jeans and all of a sudden the jeans look great. Keep the undergarments right. That’s the big deal. Keep everything in place and in the right place. Don’t ruin your feet with high heels when you’re young. You have no idea what happens to your feet when you’re 50. Because I work with actresses who have worn heels that high their entire lives and their feet are something you can’t even imagine I feel so sorry for them. They’re in agony most of the day.

MORE: How did it feel to win a Tony this year for Best Costume Design in a musical and an Oscar for best costumes in a movie?
LG: Over a 20 year period we have won an Academy Award and last Sunday a Tony award… it’s the most incredible feeling it’s confusing, it’s daunting, it’s wonderful and it’s just not really the way I expected my life would turn out. It’s wonderful, but it is daunting to have the whole world looking at you for that moment. Americans are fantastic, they are so accepting and if they love something they’ll just vote for it and they’ll love you and applaud you and embrace you. That doesn’t always happen in the rest of the world. There’s envy, backstabbing… but here in America the response is just wonderful.

MORE: What’s next for you?
LG: I don’t know. I’m torn between wanting to do something really clever and intellectual and thought provoking and just wanting to play with feathers again. If there was somewhere in between those two I’d be bored.


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First Published June 30, 2011

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