It's been over four decades since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" debuted on Broadway in 1973, followed by the 1975 movie, starring Susan Sarandon — which you probably enjoyed while dressed up in leather bondage gear during a midnight showing (or many) in college. And now it's time for the next generation to enjoy a new iteration of the classic, in the form of Fox's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again," a reimagining of the musical/horror/comedy movie for the small screen premiering Thursday. But just how will the updated version resonate in a more aware and enlightened 2016, considering one of the seminal songs features the lyrics, "I'm just a sweet transvestite, from Transsexual, Transylvania?"
For starters, director Kenny Ortega cast the amazing Laverne Cox as mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the starring role previously played by Tim Curry in the 1975 movie. As Cox said to Out magazine in August, the character is technically an alien from "the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania" and "this is not vérité. It's a fantasy." Point taken. Even with the antiquated terminology (per the GLAAD reference guide, "cross-dresser" is the appropriate word), "Sweet Transvestite" will be performed, loud and proud, in the reboot as a tribute to the original. (And, remember, back in the '70s, "Rocky Horror" was a progressive celebration of sexuality and gender expression.)
For those uninitiated to the "Rocky Horror" tradition, the story follows newly engaged couple Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) over the course of one night. After a car breakdown, they stumble upon a creepy castle inhabited by the owner, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox), now officially using the pronoun "she," and a mishmash of intriguing occupants. Terrifying experiments, mayhem, music, dancing and sexy stuff ensue.
Director Ortega and legendary costume designer, six-time Tony winner and recent Emmy nominee William Ivey Long had their own thoughtful and ambitious plans for the 21st century reimagining of the classic story — and the memorable main character. "Dr. Frank-N-Furter, as played by Laverne Cox, [would be] 60 percent Grace Jones, 30 percent Tina Turner and 10 percent Beyoncé," said Long, describing Ortega's vision for Frank. The costume designer walked and talked me through the floor-to-ceiling inspirations boards lining the walls of his Tribeca studio one day in August. "How 'bout that?" But Long looked to another musical icon for further sartorial inspiration. After all, updating the costumes for a transgender actress playing a sexually fluid, otherworldly being — previously portrayed by a cross-dressing cisgender man — can be a delicate business.
"I went to David Bowie, who loved thumbing his nose [at gender expression]," explained Long. (Aside: I also spotted Britney Spears on the inspiration boards from what looked to be her "Toxic" days. "Why did I have her?" said Long. "What naughtiness was she up to?") And while he wanted to make Cox's outfits look completely different from the original movie's by designer Sue Blaine, he couldn't not include the corsets and fishnets. So Long looked to Bowie's glam rock-era, spiderweb-like tights as an outfit foundation for Cox's updated Frank. "The webbing is under [all of Frank's outfits] because she's Transylvanian, so it is really part of her skin," he explained. But landing on the right material to create a wide-knit, but finespun, asymmetric-patterned fishnet was a tall order. "So I found a laser company that makes S&M laser-bondage outfits in Toronto, which is the capital of that sort of thing," said Long.
Long also enjoyed updating another iconic look for the mad doctor: the white lab coat, which Frank would have reworked from her treasure trove of cast-off Old Hollywood costumes lying around the castle, formerly a silent film theater. "I thought, 'well, she's a movie buff,' so she'll add shoulder pads to make it a Joan Crawford," said Long, explaining the nipped-waist silhouette and the flounce below the knee. But he didn't want a stark white lab coat, hence the menacing black handprints, which originated from an innocent place. "I got a potato," said the ever-resourceful Long, who turned the spud into a stencil by carving handprints that bring the French Lascaux caves to mind. For a final flourish, he splashed on some "Jackson Pollock"-like blood spatter and accessorized with pop art-inspired pink rubber-looking (but actually stretch Lycra) gloves. The result is sure to be your next favorite cosplay outfit.
Historical figures from the glam rock era, like the New York Dolls and England's Mud Rock, also influenced the costumes of two fellow Transylvanians: Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) the hunchback handyman and Magenta (Christina Millian) the castle maid. (I spotted a tear-out of '80s hair metal gods Mötley Crüe on the board, too.) For Riff Raff's distressed manservant outfit, Long took a page out of another mad scientist's playbook — as in, Dr. Frankenstein's — and cobbled together a single suit from six different pinstripe patterns, inspired by multiple Alexander McQueen looks. "I just riffed on Alexander McQueen," Long said.
Meanwhile, ex-delivery boy/body-part donor Eddie (Adam Lambert) and groupie Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) represent punk rock, with Sid and Nancy-inspired distressed leather moto-jackets and spiky studs. Essentially, Long chronicled the death of short-lived glam rock thanks to the advent of punk via his costumes. "When Eddie breaks through that window on his motorcycle, he's killing glam rock," he explained.
A prolific costume designer, Long also dressed Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones "Steel Wheels" tour back in 1989 and enjoyed dropping a couple rock 'n' roll Easter Eggs in this new movie. Look closely at the painted lip print on Columbia's pajama set, which is an updated take on Long's own hand-painted lip design worn by Jagger on stage. Rocky's (Staz Nair) choice of knee-length gold boxers, instead of skimpy briefs, were also an homage to Jagger.
On the other hand, vanilla couple Brad and Janet start off more on the basic end of the fashion spectrum. "Oh, there's Janet in her victim blue," laughed Long. Janet eventually ends up in her underwear, but don't expect a thong even though it's 2016 and belfies are the norm. "It's a family show," said Long. "So [Justice] wears a very high-cut mini-micro slip."
As for the former Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Tim Curry, he also appears in in the television movie as the criminologist. The role was originally played by Charles Gray in a woolly suit and burgundy cravat. But Curry had his own costume homage in mind. "He said, 'I want to look like you.' Me," laughed Long. "So I went to Brooks Brothers. I got the shirt and the tie and the gray trousers — not the chinos — but he wears my lace-up shoes. He wears exactly what I wear and it's his desire." In a project with so many inspirations, it's fitting that Ivey himself provides a poignant reference.
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again" premieres at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20 on Fox. Visit williamiveylong.com.