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How Costumes Convey the Story in ‘The Irishman,’ ‘Dolemite’ and ‘Downton Abbey’

A screenplay’s words are one thing. The director’s visual choices in framing scenes are another. Ruth E. Carter, who won an Oscar earlier this year for her “Black Panther” costume design, “You can’t tell the story in a movie without a costume. A good costume supports the performance and the script. You just go along for the ride in the story and the film, and the ride is the responsibility of the costume.”

Sandy Powell partnered with Christopher Peterson on “The Irishman.” Scorsese’s mob saga spans five decades, numerous locations and thousands of suits.
“The ’50s in my mind had a lot of blues and grays,” Powell says. “In the ’60s, a lot of the colors were mustards and olives. That’s also reflected in the background and the crowd. The ’70s had burgundy and browns.” Powell sourced vintage fabric to create the suits. “It was a real hunt. We tried to get something that resembled all these fabrics. Suit fabric is much lighter
now than it was back then. That was the challenge, trying to get everything how it looked back then.”

Carter says her goal for “Dolemite Is My Name,” was to recapture what she remembered about urban black life in the 1970s. “The ’70s is often the butt of jokes — the big Afro, the platform shoes a la Elton John,” she says. “I remember as a kid everyone wearing Earth shoes and jeans and vests.”

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“Dolemite” is about Rudy Ray Moore, a small-time comedian who finds his calling later in life when he transforms into his flashy, big-talking alter ego. Carter’s choices reflected that transformation.“We really wanted to be clear that there was a Rudy and there was a Dolemite,” she says. “He’s a vibrant guy who believes in himself, but hasn’t taken it to the next level.”
The first time Rudy becomes Dolemite, he’s mixing a green jacket with a brown shirt and pea-green pants. They were “a little mismatched, to show it’s not curated beautifully.” Later in the film, he’s looking quite slick in an all-white outfit to make a movie deal. “As we get to know him and his character, his outfits grow with him,” says Carter.

Meanwhile, Elton John and his platform shoes are a natural part of “Rocketman,” the musical biopic of the singer’s ascent to fame. “Elton has always used clothing as a disguise,” says costume designer Julian Day. “He was quite shy and hid behind the clothing.”

So while John’s real-life outrageous looks were a key part of the story (Day tweaked familiar looks, using 240,000 crystals in the famous Los Angeles Dodgers uniform instead of sequins), he had a perfect metaphorical arc in the devil costume.“That costume disintegrates as we go through the film,” he says. “The crystals and feathers are falling off; the horns come off the headdress. As he bares his soul, the costume sheds.”

For “Judy,” costume designer Jany Temime understood that Judy Garland used her performance outfits “as a sort of armor,” she says. “Her dresses are almost protection.”
That led to big outfits of bright colors, gold and glitter. But by the end of the film, she’s on stage in a much more elegant, simple black dress.“That’s because at the end she’s much more herself,” says Temime. “She doesn’t need a glam outfit to perform.”

Temime also created costumes that helped star Renée Zellweger get into character. The actor had made a decision to portray Garland with a hunched posture, and Temime responded. “[Garland] was not eating; she was not very healthy,” she says. “I had to build the dress to accentuate that. All of the glamour of the stage contrasted against the sadness of her life — that’s the juxtaposition I wanted to create, and that is essential in storytelling.”

Anna Robbins, costume designer for “Downton Abbey,” had worked on the final two seasons of the hit “Masterpiece” drama, and knew she was playing to a crowd familiar with most of the characters.“We didn’t want to lose the signature look, that sense of cohesion we’d built up over the series,” she says.

Robbins also wanted to make sure the clothing accentuated the lives the characters were leading now, and the ways their relationships to each other had evolved. To that end, Lady Mary’s working woman’s “estate suit” was critical, as were the less- oppositional outfits Mary and her sister Edith wore in shared scenes. “They always played their costumes against one another, light and dark, but now they’re slightly less at each other’s throats.”

But the clothing that told the most clearly defined arc was that of the Dowager Countess, Violet, who went from strong positive colors to a more ethereal look toward the end of the film, when she has an important conversation with Mary. “I wanted the costume to be silver, beautiful, faded and delicate — like her,” says Robbins. “And I wanted that to contrast with the monochromatic dress Mary wore. Mary is taking over the role Violet had for many years as head of the household.”
“Little Women’s” outfits were designed to give audiences a window into the Civil War era. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran says she wanted to show outfits that hadn’t necessarily been associated with that time period — including having some of her main characters eschew corsets.

“It’s a tightrope,” she says. “You want to keep the costumes accurate, but also in step with the movie that you’re making. [Author] Louisa May Alcott ran a 10-mile race — and I don’t believe she did it in a corset.”

In the end, of course, the costumes tell a part of the story and flow naturally as part of the primary script. “My philosophy is that an actor feels they embody the character more quickly and deeply when a costume helps them,” says Robbins. “If everything plays correctly and you don’t notice the costume, don’t see it jump out at you — then I’ve done my job right.”

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