Zipprodt, Patricia (1925–1999)

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Zipprodt, Patricia (1925–1999)

American costume designer. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1925; died in New York City, on July 17, 1999; graduated from Wellesley College; attended the New School and the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in New York City; married Robert O'Brien, Jr. (retired), in 1993 (died 1998); no children.

Tony Award-winning costume designer Patricia Zipprodt was once described by a punning writer as "having the gift of garb," but it was really what she did with that gift that set her apart. Known for her unique technique of painting fabric and for her impeccable research, she designed costumes for theater, dance, opera, film and television. Among her friends and colleagues, she was admired not only as a firstrate designer, but also as an extraordinary person. "Beloved P.Z., in addition to being a buoyant life force, alarmingly talented, and a wonderfully goofy chum, was a design collaborator to cherish mightily," said scenic designer Tony Walton following Zipprodt's death in 1999. "She brought such zest and humor to every day of every production on which we shared design challenges. Whether working with our much-missed Bob Fosse or on a Balanchine masterpiece or even on the rigors of the dreaded 'Scottish play' [Macbeth], Patricia was a constant fount of vitality, style, strength, affection, and fun."

Born in 1925 and raised in Chicago, where she attended the children's annex of the Art Institute of Chicago, Zipprodt was a psychology and sociology major at Wellesley College. After graduating, she made her way to New York City, thinking she wanted to become a painter. However, after attending a production of The Waltz at the New York City Ballet, she changed directions. She was particularly fascinated by the costumes designed by Barbara Karinska . "It was layer upon layer of tulle, with colors," she recalled in a later interview. "From about the fifth or sixth row, I saw these extraordinary colors. And Karinska was such a colorist. It wasn't like I was seeing yellow and green and red. It was very layered, color upon color, air and light filtering through it."

With a new goal of designing costumes for the ballet, Zipprodt spent three semesters at the Fashion Institute of Technology, learning "the craft of making a garment." From there, she assisted on Broadway, apprenticing with the legendary Irene Sharaff , and learning how to costume a production from early sketches to finished product.

Once on her own, Zipprodt did achieve her goal, creating costumes for the American Ballet Theater, the New York City Ballet, the Houston Ballet and Ballet Hispanico. She also designed for musical theater, winning Tony Awards for Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), and Sweet Charity (1985). In addition, she designed for 1776 (1969), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), and co-designed, with Ann Hould-Ward , Sunday in the Park with George (1984). In the revival of My Fair Lady (1993), Zipprodt employed her "painted fabric" technique in the Ascot scene, using shades of green, rose, lavender, and vermilion, "vibrant colors that would sparkle against the blue cyc of the set," she explained.

Zipprodt also designed for opera, creating wardrobes for the Boston Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera. But not all of her work was for the musical stage. She created costumes for non-musical plays such as Plaza Suite (1968), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), and The Glass Menagerie (1983). Off Broadway, her credits included Our Town (1959), The Balcony (1960), Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1962), and The Blacks (1962). In Hollywood, Zipprodt's most notable work was on The Graduate (1967). On television, her costumes were seen in "The Glass Menagerie" (1973) and "Alice in Wonderland" (1983).

Zipprodt took her work seriously and picked her projects with an eye to what she could bring intellectually and artistically to the work. Once signed on, she gave her all. For the 1990 production of Shogun, the Musical, she spent six months doing research, even spending three weeks in Japan, visiting film companies and the costume workroom of the Kabuki Theater to research fabrics. The designer also fully acknowledged and honored the collaborative nature of theater. "Every time we did a show together we would have long conversations about what color she was going to use and so forth," said lighting designer Tharon Musser . "She was just a joy to work with." Said Ann Hould-Ward: "To follow her from her draper's table to fitting room to darkened theater to late dinners during previews was a graduate class in not only theater but also in life. She spiritedly, elegantly, and graciously applied her talents to both looking and listening for the good of the theater and also the world at large."

With all the drama in Zipprodt's life, nothing compared to her own third-act marriage. Shortly after the designer finished college, she returned to Chicago, where she fell in love with Lieutenant Colonel Robert O'Brien, Jr. When he proposed, she declined in order to pursue her career in New York. In the early 1990s, O'Brien, who had since married, retired, and been widowed, saw Zipprodt's name in a Playbill and discovered that she was an artist in residence at Brandeis. He called the university, but, respecting her privacy, they would not divulge her phone number. O'Brien prevailed upon them to call her and deliver the message: "Bob O'Brien called, and I want to marry her." The university honored his request and the pair reunited and married in 1993, after which Zipprodt divided her time between homes in Virginia and New York. They had five years together before O'Brien's death in 1998. Patricia Zipprodt died a year later of cancer.


"In Memoriam," in Entertainment Design. October 1999, pp. 24–25.

Pecktal, Lynn. Designing and Drawing for the Theatre. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. July 19, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts