Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Deeper Meaning Behind Rachel Zegler’s White Maria Dress, According To Oscar-Nominated Costume Designer Paul Tazewell

After 60 years on the cinematic shelf, Steven Spielberg brought West Side Story back to the big screen for a beautifully-executed take on the beloved musical. Now that the movie is among 2022’s Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, it’s time to speak more closely to the elements that make the film great, including Paul Tazewell’s incredible costume design. 

Paul Tazewell’s work on costumes in the Broadway realm is prolific, with In The Heights, Hamilton and NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live under his belt. West Side Story is his first time doing costumes for a movie, and they are worth paying attention to. The most iconic fashion moment of them all, has to be the return of Maria’s white dress from the 1961 version. While speaking with CinemaBlend, Tazewell shared why the production chose to keep one costume between the West Side Story movies very much the same. In his words: 

Bernardo’s red shirt was one request and the other one was that iconic white dress that we remember of Maria [would remain the same as the original]. I think that was a smart choice because it helps to create the beginning of the arc for Maria. The fact that it is white is representative of innocence and purity, the connection to the Catholic church. It almost feels like a confirmation dress.

As Paul Tazewell shared, Steven Spielberg only had a couple requests from his costume designer when it came to his vision of the film, one of which included Maria’s dress being white with the red belt once again. Here’s the pair of Maria and Anita’s getting ready for the dance in the 1961 and 2021 versions: 

(Image credit: United Artists/20th Century Studios)

West Side Story‘s costumes are intentional and actually speak to the character’s journeys with the color palettes specifically. Paul Tazewell did something similar with the jackets Alexander Hamilton wears in Hamilton. With this film, he was intentional about giving the Jets cool tones to wear, to express the native New Yorkers who are “drained of color and drained of hope in some ways,” whereas the Sharks, who are the immigrants from Latin countries, don more warm colors, like reds and yellows. Tazewell expanded further on Maria’s dress in particular: 

Maria is this strong young woman that is ready to break out and explode into her maturity. So then, with the addition of the red belt that Anita gives her from her outfit, it’s this entrée into her womanhood and maturing as a woman within the story. It becomes a storytelling theme and I always love when costumes can do that. Yes, they give you a sense of style, but they speak to what the character’s journey is and is going to be.

Early on in the film, right before Maria goes to the dance and meets the man she would fall in love with, i.e. Ansel Elgort’s Tony, she wears an innocent and more proper white dress. However, Ariana DeBose’s Anita adds her red belt to it, which, as the designer shared, signifies her coming into womanhood on that night. 

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

It may feel like a small detail, but it’s intentional elements of West Side Story like this that make it one of the most beloved films of the past year. Ahead of the 2022 Academy Awards telecast airing on March 27, you can stream West Side Story on Disney+ and HBO Max now. 

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.