'The Greatest Showman' Costume Designer on Dressing Zendaya and Michelle Williams for a Magical 'Fashion Editorial'

"She was just a vision in crystal up there in the air," said Ellen Mirojnick about the former Disney star.
By Fawnia Soo Hoo ,

Full disclosure: I love musicals. But the "The Greatest Showman" — inspired by OG show-person P.T. Barnum and the genesis of the entertainment industry machine as we know it — was especially magical. And not just because of Hugh Jackman as the magnetic lead, superstar-in-the-making Zendaya as enchanting aerialist Anne, grown up Zac Efron dueting on a soaring love ballad once again, and swoonworthy original songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of "Dear Evan Hansen" and "La La Land" fame, but also the the costumes: The breathtaking, spectacular and absolutely magical costumes by Ellen Mirojnick, who happens to love musicals just as much as I do, if not more.


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"I just am an addict for musicals," Mirojnick excitedly said, over the phone from Los Angeles, the day before flying to New York for the film's premiere on the Queen Mary 2. "There's no other genre that I would climb a mountain for."

Photo: Nico Tavernise

The Emmy-winning designer was given a tall order to create up to 800 costumes for an expansive cast of characters, featuring Barnum's circus fam of "oddities" — from Lettie Lutz, a.k.a. The Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) to seven-foot-plus tall Lord of Leeds (Daniel Everidge) — the showman's traditional family, including devoted wife Charity (Michelle Williams), and songstress-slash-temptress Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who threatens both. Plus, the movie's period dress code required more than just Victorian-era fashion.

"[Director Michael Gracey] wanted was a film that was magical, fresh and inspired by P.T. Barnum's life," explained Mirojnick, who won an Emmy in 2013 for the "Behind the Candelabra" about Liberace. "He did not want to make a biopic nor have a period centric film. He wanted it to be a film that was fashionable, accessible, modern, and, at his biggest wish, if it was in a magazine — let's say, like Vogue it would be a fashion editorial." (His wish became reality way before the film's December 20 premiere with an Annie Leibowitz-shot feature of the cast in full costume in the illustrious September issue of Vogue.) So even though the movie is inspired by the mid-1800s portion of Barnum's life, the costumes essentially "time travel" and combine elements from the 18th century to current day to bring Gracey's magical and fantastical vision to life. 

This cape! Charity and Barnum after the circus takes off (and gives them more discretionary wardrobe funds). Photo: Nico Tavernise

Riches-to-rags-to-riches Charity wears soft, flowing and non-corseted silhouettes that allowed for hopeful and romantic song and dance numbers with besotted Barnum. Her shapes run the gamut from '40s to contemporary, including a beautiful blush, silk-satin and rosette-embellished Marchesa gown. "The overall adjective I would use would be 'sweet,'" said Mirojnick, about Charity's pink and blue hued wardrobe, full of lush velvets, exquisite floral embellishments and sublime capes. "She's the mom. She's the grounding force. She's the one that will comfort all, so there is a slight inference in that way."

After the success of the circus, Barnum decides to diversify his entertainment portfolio (and ingratiate himself with the snooty society types) in introducing singer Jenny Lind, who causes a bit of a distraction with her beguiling voice and seductively glamorous ball gowns covered in glittering Swarovski crystals. 

Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Photo: Nico Tavernise

"Jenny Lind was known as a songstress that was the Angel," Mirojnick explained, about the IRL "Swedish Nightingale" and her signature look. "She was always angelic and always performed in white." Jenny's gowns were custom-built and reworked contemporary pieces, such as, the skirting of a Zuhair Murad wedding dress. Off-the-stage, the "temptress and seductress" wears color, but in rich, jewel tones, including a gold-embellished blue dress by Marchesa that she wears for a cozy train car ride with Barnum as they embark on her U.S. tour — and leave both his families behind in New York.

"There's no softness in her coloration," continued Mirojnick, comparing Jenny's palette to Charity's comforting pastels. "I used a purple on her that I just find to be gorgeous ... but threatening."

As Anne Wheeler, aerialist and love interest to Phillip Carlyle, Zac Efron's society playboy turned loyal Barnum business associate, Zendaya also wears a purple, but more of an charming orchid hue inspired by her cotton candy pink wig. Mirojnick looked to various time periods for Anne's leotards, but avoided a specific modern day aesthetic. "We couldn't give her a flying performing suit that looked like Las Vegas," she said. "That would take you out of the story a bit." Plus, Phillip (and the audience) had to be mesmerized by Anne (and her mesmerizing daredevil stunt work) upon first glance. So Mirojnick designed a streamlined silhouette in a sweet, pretty and "fresh" pink-purple with loads of Swarovski crystals dotting the illusion panels on her sleeves and bodice. 

"She was just a vision in crystal up there in the air," the costume designer sighed.

Anne (Zendaya) and Phillip (Zac Efron) being amazing. Photo: Nico Tavernise

But Anne's dreamy cami-and-shorts practice ensemble (above) really just melted my heart, along with the aforementioned young love duet enhanced by a breathtaking aerial routine that was "90 percent" performed by Zendaya and Efron (and not without a few body slams). "Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous ruby red satin trunks trimmed with antique lace and vintage buttons and vintage detail," said Mirojnick. "We created it with a very adorable little camisole that was trimmed in lace." The outfit is based on what aerialists actually wore "some other time ago," but with Zendaya as Anne in mind. "It just set her off really in a special way."

As a a line in the movie goes, Barnum's circus is "a celebration of humanity," so Mirojnick and her team also took great care in creating costumes for the performers to highlight and celebrate what makes each of them unique, special and beautiful. But they only had eight days to design the entire circus.

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, center) and his circus family. Photo: Nico Tavernise

"The first thing that I did was listen to the music and watch the taping of the rehearsal choreography," she explained. "When you see that and hear it, your imagination just flies without a question. But I knew that it had to be a mix of shapes and colors that would absolutely elevate each one of those characters in their story, so that you recognize [who they are] first hand." So, the Bearded Lady wears glorious, taffeta-skirted Victorian ballgowns and floral headpieces, the conjoined twins wear impeccably tailored three-piece suiting, the "Albino Twins" dance in gothic white and the "Gold Girl" dazzles in a Deco-patterned shattered glass leotard that really should be repurposed for a Beyoncé or Lady Gaga video.

The spectacular opening and closing numbers included additional and real life circus performers — fire jumpers, tight rope walkers, more aerialists — all requiring even more fantastical costumes. But if you ask Mirojnick to break down how the sensational costumes all came together, she can't exactly articulate it. But she can feel it. 

"In my gut, I knew what the colors needed to be and from that moment on, it was as if I went to another planet and did this thing," Mirojnick laughed. Just like magic.

Follow Ellen Mirojnick on Instagram @byellenm and Twitter @ellenmirojnick.

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