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Fit for a Queen

Ballet-inspired looks were all the rage on certain spring runways, like those at Michael Kors and Vera Wang.

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Grace OMalley in The Pirate Queen

Grace O'Malley in "The Pirate Queen."

Photo By Joan Marcus

Ballet-inspired looks were all the rage on certain spring runways, like those at Michael Kors and Vera Wang. But unlike those fashion designers, Martin Pakledinaz had the unique challenge of concocting pieces for "The Pirate Queen," now at New York's Hilton Theatre, which had to accommodate wearers who might break into raucous displays of Irish step dancing at any moment.

"We have to believe that they live in this clothing," explains Pakledinaz of his intricate but motion-friendly designs.

"The Pirate Queen," from the creators of that other step-dancing sensation "Riverdance," tells the story of 16th-century Ireland's Grania (Grace) O'Malley, a Gaelic chieftain's daughter who sails, swashbuckles, champions her people's freedom and even parleys with Queen Elizabeth I. Covering more than 10 years of Grace's life as she makes the transitions from pirate to wife, clan leader, mother, prisoner and revolutionary, the show proved no simple sartorial feat. Particularly since the design team chose to forgo makeup as an ageing device.

"It was really dependent on the clothing to show that she was changing into a mature woman and leader," says Pakledinaz, who has won Tony Awards for his work on "Kiss Me Kate," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "The Pajama Game." "You have to build up in the audience that, one way or another, she's going to meet Elizabeth."

To express the deep historical connection of the Irish to their land, the costume designer had computerized images of natural materials such as bark, stones and sand printed onto the fabrics. Even Grace's prison shift features a pattern of waves. The men have their fun, too. One of the most commanding characters, Dubhdara, Grace's father, and his fellow clansmen wear richly embroidered quilted doublets and custom lace-up boots with fiberglass taps.

While technically involved, these pared-down looks provide a stark contrast to the opulent bejeweled gowns of the Virgin Queen. Taking inspiration from such now-iconic films as "Shakespeare in Love" and "Elizabeth," as well as from his own library of almost 4,000 art and costume books, Pakledinaz created stunning, formal looks for Elizabeth I and her English court.

Indeed, the designer's career in costuming has covered hundreds of years of style, with no signs of stopping. He is currently designing looks for the Broadway revival of "Grease" in August, "Gypsy" at City Center this summer and the Metropolitan Opera's fall production of "Iphigénie en Tauride."

However, those who might think Pakledinaz is stuck in a schizophrenic fashion history warp, take note: One of his favorite pieces from "Pirate Queen" is the simple, blue wrap dress Grace wears when she meets the Queen.

"This is my Donna Karan Elizabethan dress," quips Pakledinaz. -- Cordelia Johnson