Husband snatching, malicious gossip and fashion are staples in “The Women,” whether it is the 1939 George Cukor classic, the 2001 Broadway play or Diane English’s current adaptation. The ladies steal, scheme and dress to kill, and fabulous clothes have always played a major role.
In the original pic, Cukor had Adrian Adolph Greenberg — often referred to as “the god of costume designers” — dress his stars — Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell — in four to five glam getups a day.
“Every time Rosalind Russell walks onscreen, your jaw just drops and you say, ‘What is that she’s wearing?’ It’s so audacious and so wonderful,” recalls designer Isaac Mizrahi, who created the looks for the stage play. “The original movie is just chockful of clothes that are so funny and add so much.”
For Broadway, Mizrahi took his women on a retro-tour of ’30s fashion. “Each one of them dressed differently as the story progressed. My Mary (Cynthia Nixon) got progressively sexier. Crystal (Jennifer Tilly) got progressively more dignified and less slutty.” And Sylvia (Kristen Johnston) got to wear politically incorrect hats.
“I was flipping through this old Vogue from 1937 and I found a sketch of a hat, which had a little fox’s head on top and a tail that came down in the back,” Mizrahi says. “People just screamed, they loved it so much.”
But society has changed a great deal since 1939 when ladies who lunched had a designer outfit for breakfast, midday shopping, tea, cocktails, dinner and dessert. Today’s women sail through the day in one outfit.
In the latest film, which arrived in theaters Sept. 12, the costume designer is John Dunn. Unlike the original, in the contemporary version all the women are successful and have complex professional and personal lives but still have a close bond.
“I wanted to make sure the group looked individual but there was a common ground that they shared,” Dunn says. His Mary Haynes (Meg Ryan) has the biggest clothing arc in the story. “Mary goes through the crisis of finding out about her husband’s infidelity and comes out the other side more focused and clear on what she’s about, which is to create her own clothing line,” Dunn says. “We reduce her layers. She strips away the superfluous things.”
“What we did is a modern version,” says Narciso Rodriguez, who designed the clothes for the centerpiece fashion-show sequence. “Everything is sexy. I wanted to portray the women as sexy and strong. I couldn’t look to the past. I wanted to look to the future.”
When the characters are first introduced, there is plenty of fashion bling to ogle a la “Sex and the City.” The trappings of jewelry (millions of dollars of it), Versace dresses and 4½-inch Christian Louboutin heels are all important fashion markers. But nothing telegraphs information more than a woman’s handbag — take Sylvia’s (Annette Bening) power Birkin.
“We squealed and giggled and cheered every time a fabulous handbag showed up,” Dunn says. “But we did try to keep our eye on the ball and not just make it a frivolous piece of fluff. The idea is that the bond between people is what’s important.”