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Patricia McGourty's Designs for 'Penzance' Are the Latest to Be Freebooted by 7th Ave.

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The old pirates never died; they just faded away to Seventh Avenue. This spring the garment trade struck gold with a bold-hued, swashbuckling look in large part snatched from the smash Broadway revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Don’t pity producer Joe Papp—his original New York ensemble, led by Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline and Rex Smith, commanded up to $30 a seat, and a second company starring Andy Gibb and Pam Dawber is poised to open in L.A. next week.

But what about the show’s 34-year-old designer, Patricia McGourty, whose Pirates fee was less than $10,000? Though the plunderwear trend sprang up concurrently in London, Patricia has surveyed the corsair shirts, vests and knickers racked up in stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and admits, “If I started to think about it, I’d go crazy. Then I remember Ruth Morley, who created the Annie Hall look, didn’t get anything out of it. And, anyway, if money were important, I wouldn’t be in the theater, but on Seventh Avenue.”

Of course, had McGourty been sketching for someone other than Papp’s nonprofit theater company and thus “had more money, I would have done something different.” What she did do was extensive research into turn-of-the-century photos and silent movies, which inspired her to aim for “a feel that is naive, innocent, fresh.” The wide appeal of the buccaneer look, says designer Betsy Johnson, is a return to “dress-up time—the opposite of punk. It is the Juliet of Romeo; it is Tom Jones; it is anything romantic.”

McGourty was born a romantic back in Evergreen Park, Ill., where her now-retired dad was a sales engineer and her mother a schoolteacher and painter. Patricia majored in dramatic arts at the University of Iowa and got hooked on theater design. So in 1970 she “took $300 in graduation money and went to New York.” After learning the ropes with several off-Broadway companies, she joined Papp’s Shakespeare Festival in 1974 and has since designed costumes for some 20 productions, ranging from The Taming of the Shrew to Arturo Ui. “My life passed before my eyes,” she claims, when her all-felt designs for Taming began to disintegrate during a rain-drenched outdoor production.

Today McGourty lives alone in a loft on Manhattan’s East Side. She and her 37-year-old businessman fiancé, Beau James (son of Man of La Mancha co-producer Hal James), like to amuse themselves by strolling around Manhattan in search of the latest in piratephernalia. The fashion is not about to walk the gangplank—if for no other reason than that Bo Derek is soon to film Sea Mistress, in which she plays a swashbuckling marauderess. But, giggles McGourty, “Only when I see tricornes on Fifth Avenue will I believe the pirate look has really hit big.”