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Costume Designers Create Clothes for Period, Place and Character

Films from Woody Allen, Todd Haynes, Alexander Payne and other directors rely on garments to define their worlds

The devil lives in the details — and that’s a good thing during this awards season, in which multiple films eagerly tread on one another’s toes, whether with overlapping eras, themes, locations or even titles: think of Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” (pictured above) — both of which use New York City as an escapist destination in the 20th century — not to mention “Wonder Woman” and “Wonder.”

Nonetheless, all these films are starkly different thanks in large part to designers’ visions, particularly when it comes to costume choices. Directors certainly have the overall vision, but it’s the choices in outfits that make for big differences in look, feel, tone and even story.

“There can be two designers working on the same period and films will come out looking completely differently,” says “Wonderstruck” costume designer Sandy Powell, who clothed characters who live both in 1927 and 1977, two “revolutionary” eras, as she describes them, in terms of fashion. “It’s about your unique choice in how to accessorize someone or highlight colors or the color palette.”

Wonder Wheel’s” designer Suzy Benzinger outfitted largely for beachwear at Coney Island, which meant drawing on Allen’s memories of the era and — thanks to a lucky find — a book of photographs from the mid-1950s owned by head of the lifeguards at Coney in 1948. Even better: it was in color.

“Woody wanted this to all be joyous color; the world is changing, there’s new beginnings,” she says, indicating a decision to use an of-the-era turquoise aqua color in waitress uniforms. “I wanted to choose ‘memory color,’ and he said, ‘That’s it, that’s what I remember.’ It’s a color you don’t see much anymore.”

Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” different as they are, have a surprising number of elements in common. “Downsizing” takes place in a kind of permanent now but seems to veer into the 2040s, the period in which the “Blade Runner” update also takes place. And both films contemplate the destruction of the environment, yet neither truly embraces futuristic fashion.

In the case of “2049,” Renée April was inspired by 1982’s “Blade Runner,” with costumes by Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan. “I tried to be true to the first one,” she says. “Not a copy, but to continue in the same vision.”

That meant adapting such items as the original’s iconic trench coats and fake fur coats into ones that made sense in a harsher, colder, dying world. “We had to be humble,” she says. “We didn’t want to go very science-fiction with big shoulders and all that plastic.”

In “Downsizing,” the story’s futurism focuses on shrinking people in order to create less of an environmental impact. It takes place among relatively ordinary Midwestern Americans and has dark humor, so designer Wendy Chuck went with mass market clothes to convey tone.

“Kristin’s [Wiig] clothes are awful,” she says. “As for Matt [Damon], I gave a lot of thought about what would make him look awkward and out of his depth.”

But there were also at least two films that strove to keep things as grounded as possible, even if the actual stories were told in a heightened style. The working class uniforms of both Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya” are worn in both films by women who select their fashion as a kind of shield against the world.

Costume designer Melissa Toth and star Frances McDormand came up with the concept of coveralls for much of Mildred’s scenes in “Billboards”; McDormand is a tough-minded woman on a mission that shows in her outfits.

“She wanted to take a female character with a through line that is badass in a really deep way,” Toth says. “She wanted to have this uniform she could put on every day.”

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has many different versions of a working-class “uniform” in “I, Tonya.” All show the world who she is: a handmade rabbit coat, hand-sewn costumes and even a waitress outfit. It’s only when she starts dressing like her boyfriend (and future husband) that she loses some of her own identity and power.

“I wanted to get beyond the tabloid images we have of her,” says costume designer Jennifer Johnson. “I wanted to avoid irony, be sympathetic to her and not to make fun or fetishize. We as a society can take a tabloid moment and create a character for our own amusement.”

In the end, though, whatever an actor winds up wearing is a function less of story, era or location than of the character itself. “There’s a whole psychological workup that goes into every character,” Toth says. “Everything I do is based in specificity of character. The actor is the jumping off point for me. Everything else follows from there.”

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