The Guilds: Costume Designers Guild

Anyone who thinks that politics is above fashion wasn’t paying attention during the recent election campaign.

By now we all know that President Obama’s suits are made by union-approved Chicago apparel company Hart Schaffner Marx. We also watched as Sarah Palin’s designer shopping spree provided the right look but sent out the wrong, possibly fatal, message.

In that same politically pivotal year of 2008, Hollywood gave us a trio of films about political figures that got deep inside the psyches — and the wardrobes — of assassinated San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (“Milk”), disgraced President Richard Nixon (“Frost/Nixon”) and then-President George W. Bush (“W.”).

“W.” costume designer Michael Dennison says a politician’s suit is his or her uniform. “When you’re making a film about the president of the United States and his Cabinet, you want to try to make as much of a statement about that uniform as you possibly can.”

Because Bush was still in office during the making and release of the film, no contact was allowed with those who might have had access to the president’s closet. The designer did commission a number of suits from Washington, D.C.’s Oxford Tailors, a known Bush favorite, but Dennison stresses that all the costumes were meant to offer “an interpretation of an interpretation. It’s not as if we were doing a docudrama.”

Dennison and helmer Oliver Stone made a decision to “amp up the reality 15%-20%,” mostly in the form of vivid power ties, “so that when you’re looking at that sea of gray and navy blue, you’re going to see a character by way of this slash of color.” In one scene, the power struggle between Bush, played by Josh Brolin, and Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney was actually enacted via the dueling intensities of their red ties. “I was using a bit of color psychology to paint the tone,” Dennison reveals.

“Frost/Nixon” costume designer Daniel Orlandi compares his work on set to that of a psychologist. “You’re really figuring out the character,” he says. “How rumpled would they be, how neat would they be?”

In the case of Nixon, whose appearance during his televised 1960 debate with JFK was said to have cost him the election, the answer almost two decades later was, well, still pretty rumpled. Then again, it would have been tough for any man to compete with natty talkshow host David Frost, wearing Savile Row suits and Gucci loafers — let alone a conservative politician who never strayed from off-the-rack navy-blue numbers.

“His suits were never really in style, so they were never really out of style,” notes Orlandi, adding that Nixon’s classic “Republican” suits are virtually indistinguishable from Cheney’s. The designer studied the clothes in Nixon’s archive, precisely measuring the jacket lapels and the width of the pants and then replicating them in proportion for Frank Langella. Because the actor had already been playing the part on Broadway for a year, Orlandi points out, “We had to really brush up on our Nixon to work with him.”

When it came to “Milk’s” costumes, which earned Danny Glicker an Oscar nom, there was no need to brush up, since many of Milk’s close friends were intimately involved with the production. Danny Nicoletta’s photographs provided visual references, and slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s son even brought in one of his father’s ties for Victor Garber to wear during Milk’s swearing-in ceremony.

In fact, the clothes worn by Milk are crucial to the story itself, for it wasn’t until the activist traded his long hair and denim for a neatly trimmed coif and respectable wool suit that he was elected to office. “Harvey was absolutely committed to his message,” says Glicker, “but he wised up about the presentation and realized he can’t ask for everything. He had to operate within the system.”

Granted, Milk’s suits were ill fitting and secondhand, in contrast with those of fellow city supervisor Dan White, who wore of-the-moment polyester three-pieces from stores like JCPenney. “Everything Dan was wearing was meant to convey that he was presentable and modern and upwardly mobile,” says Glicker, adding that Brolin looked “alarmingly” similar to Milk’s assassin.

If there was one key wardrobe item, however, it was the city supervisor’s famously worn-out shoes. It’s said that Milk’s colleagues immediately knew he’d been shot because they could see the holes in his soles. And Glicker confirms that Sean Penn, too, wore beat-up shoes with holes in them. “He’s a really enthusiastic collaborator,” says the designer. “He really understood the power in something like Harvey’s shoes.”

Tip Sheet

What: 11th Costume Designers Guild (CDG) Awards

When: Tuesday

Where: Beverly Wilshire, BevHills



Swarovski President’s Award: Michael Douglas

Distinguished Collaborator Award: James Burrows

Lacoste Career Achievement in Film: Marilyn Vance

Career Achievement in Television: Van Broughton Ramsey

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