A Korean American woman smiles at the camera and places both her hands on her hips
Willa Kim, 1966. Photo © Jack Mitchell. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts celebrates the long and colorful career of costume designer Willa Kim in her first-ever major retrospective exhibition, The Wondrous Willa Kim: Costume Designs for Actors and Dancers. Kim’s archive was acquired by the Library in 2017. The show features an assortment of designs and costumes from her long and prolific career, including work from productions like Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, The Will Rogers Follies, and her final Broadway show, Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews.

From her earliest designs to her very last production, Kim demonstrated her gift for creating whimsical costumes by using extraordinary combinations of color and texture. Born in 1917 to Korean immigrant parents, Kim began her professional life as a painter in Los Angeles, California, where she grew up. After studying from what would later become CalArts, she found a job as an assistant to Barbara Karinska, working under Raoul Pène du Bois who designed costumes for the Ginger Rogers 1944 film Lady in the Dark.

Following her mentors to New York, Kim began designing costumes for Broadway productions, such as The Red Eye of Love, and Goodtime Charley, Song & Dance, Dancin’, Tommy Tune Tonite! She designed costumes for some of the leading choreographers and dancers, like Eliot Feld and Michael Smuin, and production companies like Ballet Hispánico and American Ballet Theatre, as well as opera performances, figure skaters, and even some film and TV productions. She even designed salad-themed dresses for a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. The exhibition will feature designs alongside some of the costumes that showcase Kim's extraordinary range and ingenuity.

The Wondrous Willa Kim is curated by Bobbi Owen, professor emerita of the Department of Dramatic Art at the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she taught costume history and design. Owen is author of a monograph about Kim’s creative work published in 2005.

Learn More About Willa Kim

An illustration featuring a person spreading their arms with red, yellow and blue costume and discs around their arms.
Costume Design by Willa Kim for Mark Hochman in Under the Sun: A Tribute to Alexander Calder, October 1976. Billy Rose Theatre Division.

Who was Willa Kim, and why was she so important to Broadway history? Read our blog post about Kim, exploring her work in theater, dance, and other venues, and how she influenced costume design.

Read More

Installation Views

Entrance of the exhibition with a purple title graphic to the left and a mannequin with a decorated suit and top hat in the window to the right.
Wide view of the gallery with frames on the exterior walls and costumes on several platforms in the middle of the space.
A circular, central platform featuring several costumes and their respective drawings.
A circular, central platform featuring several costumes and their respective drawings.
A close up of the Regina Red Wine Pasta Salad dress on a small, circular platform.
Butterfly costumes and set designs from Papillon.
Costumes and drawings from Sophisticated Ladies.
A view of the final wall covered in costume sketches and material swatches. A portrait of Willa Kim and Sally Ann Parsons in their studio is at the top.