Talk about a daunting challenge.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson and costume designer Mark Bridges have collaborated on many films, from “Magnolia” to “There Will Be Blood” to “Inherent Vice.” But the helmer’s latest project, “Phantom Thread,” is a film centered on the art of costume design itself.
The twisty “Thread,” from Focus Features, is set in the world of 1950s London couturiers. With lace overlays and meticulously draped taffetas, Bridges, who won an Oscar for “The Artist,” diligently conceptualized the emotion, history and mystique-infused creations of fictional society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who finds inspiration in his muse Alma, played by Vicky Krieps.
In “Thread,” Reynolds fits his own toiles in the rare, sculptor-like tradition of Cristóbal Balenciaga. Though Bridges says the groundbreaking Spanish designer wasn’t precisely in the DNA of “the house of Woodcock,” neither were the designs of legendary British-American fashion designer Charles James.
“[My work is] very specific to time and place,” Bridges explains. “There are references [to both], but we tried to do Reynolds more like his contemporaries.” He cites such names as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Michael Sherard, John Cavanagh, Digby Morton and Victor Stiebel. “We went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and examined their work to get a flavor of London at that time.” Bridges even playfully guesses that when a major aristocratic client, Henrietta Harding, abruptly leaves Reynolds, it might be for Hartnell, then the maker of Queen Elizabeth’s traveling clothes.
Bridges made approximately 50 garments for “Phantom Thread,” including the understated wardrobe of the character named Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. We put a lot of work into having her be the power behind the man,” Bridges says. “It was Anderson’s idea to put her in dark colors — he loved her luminous pale skin. I chose charcoal grays. We touched on the [kind of] uniform women would wear at Balenciaga’s. Paul and I love [Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’], so maybe accidentally we got a flavor of [Judith Anderson] in there.”
His team went far and wide for fabrics, sourcing them from suppliers in Rome, France, Los Angeles, New York and Germany. But most, especially the woolens, came from the U.K.
To instill clothes with personalities that enrich the story, Bridges selected colors and repeated garments and silhouettes throughout, constructing a fun puzzle. An American heiress is dressed in green, the color of money, for instance. One of Alma’s early necklines is replicated on a wedding dress designed later for a princess. The opening dress Reynolds delivers to Harding — a floor-length maroon-and-pink caped gown — is duplicated with alternate colors for his spring collection. A lavender cap-sleeve dress Reynolds fits on Alma — his first design for the muse — is reworn by her to a carefree New Year’s Eve party. And so on.
For his favorite garment — and the most challenging one to make, a full-skirted gown overlaid with precious lace — Bridges successfully hunted down Flemish lace from the 1700s. Ultimately wanting Reynolds to have some authorship over the dress, he let Day-Lewis pick a soft lilac for it. And true to the taste of Woodcock (who wears lavender pajamas purchased at Budd Shirtmakers in the Piccadilly Arcade), shades of purple or lilac appear as a through line in the film. “Purple is often associated with royalty, magic, mystery,” Bridges says. “When combined with pink, it is associated with eroticism, femininity and seduction. It was a subtle emphasis to many of the aspects of the story.”