Costume Designer Paul Tazewell on Molly Brown's fashion sense

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Acclaimed Costume Designer Paul Tazewell shows off one of his 14 distinct looks for Molly Brown in the Denver Center’s premiere staging of the new The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Photo by John Moore.

By John Moore

Award-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell sees a little bit of Molly Brown in Kim Kardashian.

Wait, what?

Well, when you think about it  … Brown was a blue-collar Missouri factory worker by age 13 who rose to international celebrity after a sensational ocean disaster. Kardashian achieved notoriety only after a sensational sex tape. Both nouveau personalities then struggled to fit in within the day’s fashion standards.

But no matter how hard they tried, they never got it quite right.

“It was lovely what Kim had on at the (2013) Emmys,” Tazewell said. “She was trying, but it was a little too tight and a little bright. She turned up the volume a little bit, and she didn’t get it quite right for what was appropriate for the event.”

Welcome to Molly Brown’s world.

At first, Brown made her own dresses, Tazewell said. And some of her choices were questionable at a time when taste left no room for individuality.

“There were many more rules that were applied within society then,” Tazewell said. “Since Molly Brown’s time, we have become a very casual fashion community. Our modern fashion style has a lot of casual elements, like jeans and sneakers. You would never think of wearing flip-flops to a wedding back then. So I think how we see fashion is much different thing than the rigors of what it took then to put yourself together. That required staff and all kinds of underwear,”

In designing the Denver Center’s new look at The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the five-time Tony Award-nominee’s goal was to communicate Brown’s relationship to any given community — from Leadville to Paris — through her sometimes ostentatious fashion choices.

“The other women’s clothes will always set the appropriate year and tone,” Tazewell said. “And when Molly comes into it, you’ll be able to see what she didn’t get right. The strength of her color choices will pull her out of the more staid fashion sense of the Denver community. So we are using a lot of strong jewel tones like red and emerald green. We use a coral color and an aqua teal tone for her as well.” 

The fun will be showing Molly’s evolution through her clothing choices. “Over time, she does need to mature in her fashion sense,” Tazewell said. “So within her idea of what tasteful is, she becomes more tasteful.”  

Tazewell has more than 14 years of experience designing for theatre, dance and opera, both in the United States and internationally. He said his biggest challenge in designing Molly Brown was making the costumes feel accurate to the story, while staying true to the Broadway musical genre.

“The color and scale is part of it, but it’s also about making choices that feel emotionally true to the characters and the story they are telling,” Tazewell said. “That’s how I approach all my pieces. As a costume designer, at the end of the day, it needs to be true for the character.”

Unfortunately for some of the women in the Molly Brown cast, the story’s period will require many hourglass corsets, petticoats, layers, boots “and all kinds of underwear,” Tazewell said. “But we are going to use elastic insets in the corset so that the actors don’t pass out.”

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Sidebar: Debbie Reynolds’ Molly Brown dress is

As part of the festivities in Denver, the DCPA has arranged for one of Debbie Reynolds’ famous dresses from the 1964 film adaptation of The Unsinkable Molly Brown to be brought to Denver. It will showcased in the lobby of The Stage Theatre throughout the run of the show. The featured dress is shown at right.

Paul Tazewell/At a glance

Graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts and NYU ‘s Tisch School of the Arts. 

Selected credits:
Broadway: Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (Tony Nomination), On the Town, Def Poetry Jam, Elaine Strich at Liberty, Fascinating Rhythm.
Off-Broadway: Flesh and Blood, Harlem Song, Dina Was, City Center Encores! Li’l Abner, Once Around the City, Before It Hits Home, Playboy of the West Indies (Lincoln Center Theatre). Joseph Papp Public Theatre: Boston Marriage, One Flea Spare, Henry V, Venus, Blade to the Heat.

Award and honors include:
Lucille Lortel Award for On the Town, two Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Costume Design (The African Company Presents Richard III and Peer Gynt), a Michael Merritt Award, and the AUDELCO Award for Harlem Song. The TDF Irene Sharaff Young Master Award and a Princess Grace Fellowship.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Ticket information
Performances begin Sept. 12
Stage Theatre
Runs through Oct. 26.
303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at

Previous Molly Brown coverage on  MyDenverCenter.Org