Hannah Elless: Vintage Bluegrass

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Hannah Elless looks like 1970s Barbie today.

She’s sporting a pair of dark-wash denim flairs with a white t-shirt. A purple bandana—her mom’s camp accessory from the decade— is tied around her neck, and a pair of sunglasses holds back her blondish hair.

The piece de resistance? An oversized Ralph Lauren jean jacket.

“It’s from a friend of mine who was cleaning out their family’s heirlooms,” she says. “They were going to throw this away, and I went, ‘What? Why would you throw away a Ralph Lauren jean jacket? This is amazing.'”

It’s an appropriate outfit, as we’re meeting at the Buffalo Exchange in Chelsea, and Elless has promised to teach me her thrifting ways. “People can get intimidated by vintage clothes,” she says. “The fun thing about vintage clothing is you can mix and match with on-trend styles, because what goes around comes around.”

Elless is all smiles, even though she’s undoubtedly exhausted from a full week of previews in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, which opens on March 24 at the Cort Theatre. And her optimism and generosity helped her create the character of Margo Crawford, an innocent, lovelorn girl from Asheville, NC in the 1940s.

“She’s so gracious—I aspire to be as gracious as her,” Elless says. “She’s always believing the best in people, and I think that is an admirable quality, especially in 2016, especially in New York, especially in this political season. It’s hard to go around and believe the best in people and that’s what Margo does.”

However, Margo is a lot more awkward than Elless, who says she drew from some of her more awkward life moments to create the character’s quirks. “I really try and explore the scope of my humanity—what’s possible in me—and then the scope of her humanity—what’s possible in her—and where can those two things meet?”

Elless wants to raid the scarves section, as she insists that is a place where vintage treasure lie. I picked out a teal scarf with horses from the rack before Elless arrived, and she gushes, “I believe in color palettes and I believe in horses!” She also adds that scarves are a good place to start for newbie vintage shoppers.

“Raid your parents closet first because that’s free and it’s full of history, and there’s nothing I love more than wearing a piece of history,” she says. “After that I say start small. Costume jewelry or scarves or bags are really fun, and they don’t have to overwhelm or define a whole outfit for you. Then if you’re really adventurous, I say get a statement piece like a jacket.”

Since the musical takes place in the 40s, the five floral dresses Elless wears in the show have a vintage feel. When the show was in San Diego at the Old Globe in 2014, Elless wore a dress, which she called her “Deer Dress” because it had the animal on it, made from actual vintage fabric, but the material was not strong enough to hold up to the performance schedule. Now, costume designer Jane Greenwood, who Elless calls a “genius of the details,” reprints vintage designs on contemporary fabric that can sustain an eight-show-a-week schedule. “I feel like I’m living in a Norman Rockwell painting,” Elless says of the design.

Just then, she spots something on the rack: Gold sparkles from beneath the heap of scarves and wraps. She grabs it, and a jeweled, bandana-shaped neck scarf emerges. She reads the label and looks it up on her phone. She speaks her next words like a kid on Christmas: “We found couture!!”

Then before taking the scarf with her, she asks, “Am I brave enough to wear this?” Let’s pretend that was a rhetorical question. Elless can pull off pretty much anything. On the day of the photoshoot, she arrived in black overalls, which she calls her “business casual pair” (she has five), with a sweater tied around her waist. While I wore that combination as an awkward middle schooler in the 90s, Elless made it stylish and insists that anyone can rock the look—she’s even gotten the women in her cast buying overalls.

Then she turns the tables. “Find something that scares you,” she says. “You just have to try on something that you think you could never pull off.”

As we browse the jackets, she finds a floral one, which she calls a “Margo Crawford jacket.” I pull out a khaki trench. Elless is not pleased. “That’s a classic trench coat, get out of here!” she says with a laugh. “What about a cape? Have you ever worn a cape before?”

She picks out a short, gray patterned cape for me. She’s right; it’s a little scary.

Full disclosure: Elless and I have been friends and sometime collaborators for a few years now so the joking banter comes with ease. However, I saw her perform before we ever met at 54 Below for Charlie Rosen’s Big Band concert, and Elless blew the roof off the basement with Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” The woman next to me, whom I had never met before, leaned over and said: “Remember that name, Hannah Elless.”

Elless is a stage name — the phonetic pronunciation of her last two initials, L.S. She grew up in Michigan, the second oldest of 11 siblings, and her entire family is musical. Elless plays several instruments—guitar, drums, mandolin, piano are her main ones—and she was in a band with her siblings. They played a lot of bluegrass, which is why the music in Bright Star feels so familiar to her. Elless describes Martin’s and Brickell’s tunes as Americana or “sophisticated bluegrass,” and while she doesn’t play an instrument in the show, she did bring her mandolin to her audition.

The casting call asked performers to sing a bluegrass tune, and since Elless says most songs in the genre aren’t made for piano, she sang and played a song her father taught her when she was little.

“It was one of those moments where the air goes out of the room and I finished the song and looked around and I teared up because it was emotional for me,” she remembers. “And I called my dad after the audition and just said thank you for giving me the gift of music. Who knew when I was learning this song so many years ago that I would be singing it for Steve Martin in an audition room!?”

While Bright Star isn’t her Broadway debut—she was a replacement in the revival of Godspell—she says it feels like her first time because she’s never originated a character and gone through on opening. She’s been with the show for a year and a half, first at the Old Globe in 2014 and then at the Kennedy Center this past December.

“I love new musicals—it’s what I’ve been pouring my life into so to have one finally come to Broadway is thrilling,” she says. “It’s really what I like to do. I like to create, I like to tell stories.”

And Elless wants to tell stories with her clothes too, particularly the ones bought secondhand. “I love the romantic part of buying something you just don’t know what its story is,” she says. “You kind of imagine where it’s been and what life it’s lived and then it gets to be part of your story too.”

Elless finds success with a denim bomber jacket, a maxi dress, and, of course, her couture scarf. I debate a black wool coat and a structured navy dress, but decide against it, as there are too many similar items already in my closet. The cape is a no-go.

I’m happy to end my first consignment endeavor with the teal scarf, which Elless approves of—“You should always wear this color.” As Elless is checking out, the cashier compliments her jacket. “Where’s it from,” he asks.

“It’s vintage Ralph Lauren,” she replies, with a smile, “It’s from a friend who was cleaning out a closet.”

And the story continues.

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Styling by Yael Guetta
Hair by Aubrey Mae Davis
Makeup by Steve Schepis
Clothing by Maria Lucia Hohan, Jennifer Behr, Catherine Osti
Shoes by Marion Parke