On first thought, it might seem that costuming a contemporary film would be much simpler than costuming a period piece. After all, you can just go to the store and shop, can’t you?
Well, sometimes that happens, but as the contempo noms in the Costume Designers Guild Awards make clear, modern-day stories bring their own sartorial challenges. As “Babel’s” Michael Wilkinson notes, moviegoers are sometimes less willing to suspend disbelief when the character’s in a sweatshirt, as opposed to a corset. “The audience is so attuned to the language of contemporary clothes that it’s very hard to get everything completely right,” he explains.
That goes double for an audience whose language is clothing itself. With “The Devil Wears Prada,” stylists and editors complained that the outfits were out of date and the designers all wrong.
Says “Devil” designer Patricia Field, best known for her irreverent, trendsetting looks on “Sex and the City,” “It was never my idea to document the Vogue magazine world. What was relevant in the big picture was that audiences had some idea or fantasy of fashion, and I just wanted to fulfill it for them.”
In that fantasy, lowly assistants get to raid the magazine’s “fashion closet,” piling on thousands of dollars’ worth of Chanel, because, well, Chanel offered — also, Field says Anne Hathaway is “the perfect Chanel girl.” Of the designers who refused to get involved for fear of Anna Wintour’s wrath, Field will only say, “I think they were probably sorry.”
There’s no lack of fashion designers eager for publicity, and Field went about creating nearly 500 unique looks for the film in much the same way Hollywood stylists dress their clients: she borrowed. Producer Wendy Finerman acknowledged that without Field’s fashion industry connections, the clothes never could have passed muster. For a character like Miranda Priestley, the value of her Fred Leighton jewels alone was three times the films’s $100,000 wardrobe budget.
Field’s theme for the fearsome editrix was “royalty,” and she clothed Meryl Streep in expensive, ornate jackets by Bill Blass, gold Gucci sunglasses, body-hugging Donna Karan pieces from the designer’s ’80s archive and tailored separates that also connoted “career woman.”
To recreate real royalty, Consolata Boyle navigated between Elizabeth II’s public and private personae in “The Queen.” Because the movie intercut certain reenacted scenes with archival footage, there were outfits Boyle had to research “within a hair’s breadth,” such as the two-piece suit the queen wore when she first addressed the nation after Princess Diana’s death.
For the queen’s meetings with Tony Blair, Boyle sketched variations on the simple, flattering dresses by one of her regular designers, Hardy Amies, while the intimate, informal scenes at Balmoral Castle afforded the costume designer “more freedom to imagine.” Boyle combined some of the queen’s signature pieces — Hermes headscarves, Crocket and Jones walking shoes and a waxed jacket from Barbour that set off a mini-fad when “The Queen” was released — with custom-woven tartans and Harris tweeds in soft heathery tones.
“She’s so obviously happy in that environment where she can be completely herself,” says Boyle.
When it comes to another British icon, James Bond, Lindy Hemming is the go-to gal, having costumed the past four 007 films. For “Casino Royale,” she stuck with the secret agent’s preferred tailor, Brioni, but introduced some more youthful, relaxed looks as well, including linen pants, T-shirts and short, tight swim trunks custom made by La Perla Grigio. “Daniel Craig really liked them,” says Hemming, chuckling, “and so did everyone else.”
While Hemming visited the tailors of Saville Row, Nancy Steiner visited the malls of America for most of “Little Miss Sunshine’s” costumes. “On a lower-budget feature, for the most part, you shop when it’s contemporary,” explains the designer, who made her name on such indie films as “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation.” “You only make things when you have specific ideas that you can’t find.”
Steiner had fun creating a worn-out Vegas T-shirt for aging swinger Grandpa, and she also silkscreened teenage Duane’s “Jesus Was Wrong” shirt, choosing sunshine yellow before the VW bus had even been painted. Olive’s red cowboy boots and headbands, she says, were inspired by the young daughters of her friends. “They are just the craziest dressers! They put these outfits together, and I am blown away every time.”
Not surprisingly, the breakaway pants for Olive’s dance routine had to be custom made; Olive’s competitors, on the other hand, were actual beauty pageant contestants who arrived fully dressed and made up, ready for their close-ups.
Sometimes the real thing is the only option, as “Babel’s” Wilkinson can attest. In order to avoid cliches in clothing the Moroccan characters, he says, “we needed to get lateral.” What that meant was shopping for new clothes in the souks of Casablanca, then bringing those clothes to the town squares of small villages and offering them in trade for the villagers’ old garments. “In exchange, we got racks and racks of amazing clothes that had an inbuilt life to them,” he enthuses. “Each tear and stain had a story to tell.”
Where: Beverly Wilshire Hotel
“Babel” — Michael Wilkinson, Gabriela Diaque and Miwako Kobayashi
“Casino Royale” — Lindy Hemming
“Little Miss Sunshine” — Nancy Steiner
“The Devil Wears Prada” — Patricia Field
“The Queen” — Consolata Boyle
“Curse of the Golden Flower” — Chung Man Yee
“Dreamgirls” — Sharen Davis
“The Illusionist” — NgilaDickson
“Marie Antoinette” — Milena Canonero
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” — Penny Rose
“Eragon” — Kym Barrett
“Pan’s Labyrinth” — Lala Huete
“The Fountain” — Renee April
“V for Vendetta” — Sammy Sheldon
“X-Men: The Last Stand” — Judianna Makovsky