28 Days of Black Fashion History: Geoffrey Holder

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Geoffrey Lamont Holder could easily be considered a Renaissance Man. He is an actor, dancer, choreographer, director, producer, painter, photographer, sculptor and designer. (And I’m probably leaving something out that wasn’t highly publicized.)

Born in Trinidad, Holder was exposed to the arts at an early age, his brother teaching him to paint and perform in his dance troupe at the age of 7. His talent for painting was so phenomenal, the sale of 20 of his paintings enabled his dance troupe to come to America in 1954, thus beginning his love affair with New York and Broadway.

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Dresses designed by Geoffrey Holder

Though Geoffrey lent his design talents to many projects, his most famous is probably the 1975 Broadway production of “The Wiz”, an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” which featured an all Black cast. Lending his expertise to costume, prop and set design, Holder became the first African American to be nominated for and win Tony awards for Director of a Musical and Costume Design.

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(from left): Costumes for Tin Man, Glinda, The Wiz, and Addaperle. Costumes are from the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” and are now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
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Some of Geoffrey’s original sketches of the Scarecrow, Dorothy and the TinMan.

“The Wiz” is by far one of his most popular projects. The stage musical has been redone over and over again and made into a movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, a cult classic for many. Most exhibits featuring Holder’s work highlight “The Wiz” and its groundbreaking contributions to American theater. Check out the blog post from a few years ago after visiting the New York Public Library’s exhibit on Geoffrey Holder.

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clockwise from top left: Dorothy’s dress from the 1975 Broadway musical “The Wiz”; Director Geoffrey Holder, demonstrating for Stephanie Mills, as Dorothy, and the Munchkin chorus in The Wiz (1975); “The Wiz” played by Andre Deshields in full costume; Me posing in front of an original sketch of the costume design for “Evilene, Wicked Witch of the West”; Holder’s design for the Tornado dancers which also served as inspiration for the musical’s logo.

Three years later in 1978, he again directed, choreographed and designed the costumes for the Broadway musical “Timbuktu”, an adaptation of Robert Wright’s and George Forrest’s “Kismet”. The cast included emerging actors Eartha Kitt, Melba Moore and Obba Babatundé. He received another Tony nomination for costume design.

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A scene from “Timbuktu” with Eartha Kitt (center). Costume design by Geoffrey Holder.

More recently, he designed costumes for the 1982 Dance Theater of Harlem adaptation of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”. A PBS special was made showing his process and how he designed and helped produce the spectacular dance costumes. He said, “Costumes can be treacherous. Masks and wings and things like that … [are] gonna be in the way of the dancers. And how does the fabric move? And will the fabric dance?”

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Click here to watch a segment from the PBS special on the Dance Theater of Harlem’s performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and Holder’s contributions to the costume design of the production.

Geoffrey also loved designing clothes for his wife, Carmen de Lavallade.

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Holder’s wife and dancer, Carmen de Lavallade seated in their home in a dress designed by Holder.

“It’s going to be so grand when I’m through with it. I’m going to make an evening dress out of that. Something that only Carmen can wear.”

Geoffrey Holder passed away in 2014. He is survived by his wife Carmen, his son Leo and a whole community that appreciate and treasure his artistic talents. His legacy and contributions to the world of theater, art and design leave a lasting impression and inspiration for future artists and designers.

 

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