Nude Illusions of the Outback: 261 Costume Changes for the Queen of the Desert

priscilla queen desert Nude Illusions of the Outback: 261 Costume Changes for the Queen of the DesertThree pairs of stockings were fluttering above a stainless-steel fan in the basement backstage of the Palace Theater, currently home to Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical. In a moment of calm before the pre-curtain storm, Brian Bustos, the production’s associate costume designer, was explaining the origins of the fire-orange rubber lizard costumes, reminiscent of Transformers. “The lizards were made in Australia,” he said, “and the boots were made in Canada and then the heads are made in London, so this costume comes from three different continents!”

The lavish production, first produced in Sydney, Australia, in 2006, and currently running on the West End in London, is a larger-than-the-screen adaptation of the 1994 film chronicling the odyssey of three drag queens across the outback. The winning feature of the madcap movie was the endless parade of costume confections. From feathers to flip-flops hinged together to form a sheath dress, the designs of then newcomers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel were revolutionary and won the team an Academy Award. Ms. Gardiner’s choice of outfit for the ceremony was a dress made entirely of American Express Gold Cards.

“It was a bit of a nightmare,” Ms. Gardiner told The Observer over the phone. “It imprinted all over my body. Tim brought a pair of pliers and had to keep putting it back together.”

Mr. Bustos is in charge of overseeing day-to-day operations for the Broadway production. The more than 500 costumes were designed by the original duo. Ms. Gardiner said the musical version “is like the film on a massive dose of steroids.”

Throughout the mazelike backstage, areas cordoned off with sheets of thick black cotton, called “bunkers,” act as quick-change dressing rooms and house each chorus member’s array of costumes in neat rows of hangers. In one of the bunkers, Mr. Bustos held up a soaring feathered headdress perched on a Styrofoam wig form. Most of the headdresses are made in London and then accented with feathers in New York. All of the feathers are sourced from midtown’s Dersh Feather Company. “It’s where everyone get their feathers,” Mr. Bustos said. “Sesame Street, Vegas, the circuses–everyone. And they custom-dye them all the colors we need, like in the Les Girls headdresses, there’s four different colors of pink!” The show uses 295 ostrich plume feathers, in addition to 100,000 Swarovski crystals.

With only six women in the 27-person cast, one of the primary challenges is dressing men as women. “We’re forcing the body to look feminine,” explained Mr. Bustos. “The Les Girls outfit is cut very high on the leg so it looks like a very long Barbie leg. And some of these guys have very long torsos, so we have to cut this lower.” He made a v-shape across his chest.

All male cast members must wear a nude illusion under their costume. “It’s basically a big pantyhose stocking that’s opaque. It gets rid of all their hair and all the definition of their body, and when you light it, it makes them look more delicate,” Mr. Bustos said. Each nude illusion is custom-made and dyed to the actor’s skin tone.

The choice of fabric for the illusion is highly debated. Mr. Bustos prefers a porous mesh weave, but he noted that the selection depends on the hairiness of the cast members. “Like in this cast, we have pretty smooth guys just naturally, whereas in London they have a lot of guys with chest hair that they clip but don’t shave, so you have to make them look smooth. Here we can almost get away without covering people’s chests.”

In one of the bunkers, a harried woman in jeans with a long blond braid pushed past. “I’m sorry, I have to do my baskets,” she said. The wardrobe department staffs 11 dressers, two supervisors and six to eight day workers, all of whom begin setting up their laundry baskets about two hours before curtain call. The dressers prepare and ferry the costumes back and forth onto the wings of the stage, where most of the cast make the 261 costume changes. “So they take off one costume and put it in the basket, and then the stagehands bring that back down and come up with the next one,” explained Mr. Bustos.

Even in the theater lobby, it is clear that costumes are crucial in this production. It has perhaps the only merchandise stand on Broadway to feature a silver, pointy-toe Manolo Blahnik Mary Jane in the display case. “That’s the Priscilla Manolo!” gushed the salesman in a neon pink boa. “Aren’t they fabulous?”

Outside the theater, after the performance, a coven of fastidiously coiffed middle-aged men clustered together. They discussed a dinner engagement later in the week. “Well, that place is very versatile, you can really get away with anything, but of course,” the man trailed off, glancing down at his spine-bent Playbill, “you are what you wear.”

cmalle@observer.com