To look at Felicity Jones as the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the opening scene of “On the Basis of Sex” is to glimpse a microcosm of the next two hours: Outfitted in a 1950s-silhouetted dress, jacket and seamed pantyhose, Ginsberg is one of the few women at a Harvard Law School introductory seminar among 450 men dressed in gray suits.
“It’s a full ensemble that is quite feminine, but in an appropriate way for where she was,” says the film’s costume designer Isis Mussenden. “Seeing it juxtaposed like that immediately tells our audience that this is someone special. It immediately tells us we’re in another era. And that she’s a fish out of water.”
Such is a key job of a film’s costume designer: to provide an audience shorthand so the story can begin.
Designers for films including “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Roma,” “The Favourite” and “Colette” all had to tackle different versions of this kind of scene, setting atmosphere and time period in the blink of an eye.
“A lot of it is a feeling,” says “Beale Street” designer Caroline Eselin, who relied on historical photos and descriptions from James Baldwin’s novel to help guide her in creating the late 1960s and early 1970s in Harlem.
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“When you’re doing it, you’re divining. Reasons often go unspoken but most everything I’ve ever done, there’s a reason for — down to the underwear.”
Photos also came into play for the 1970s-set, Mexico-based “Roma.” Director Alfonso Cuaron showed photos of his mother to costume designer Anna Terrazas, who had the dual challenges of creating a realistic Mexican 1970s, where the fashion was perhaps a decade behind the U.S., and finding shades and patterns that worked for black-and-white film.
“We went with a lot of textures,” she says. “These crazy motifs that were close to the ‘60s. But since it was a black-and-white film, it was a challenge to find the right contrasts of not too light, not too dark.”
“It’s not like we say, ‘This is how we’ll set an atmosphere,’” says Sandy Powell, who designed costumes for
“Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Favourite.” “I work instinctively based on what information directors give me, verbal or visual.”
For both films, Powell relied on contrasts to achieve her ends: The 1930s Depression-era “Poppins” shows the Banks family in reduced circumstances with “ordinary-looking, wintery and dark and a bit gloomy-looking” clothes so that the fantasy worlds Mary conjured and embodied could pop with color and imagination.
“By the end of the film, I wanted those two things to meld, so you could see that [father] Michael is in a place where he can accept fantasy into his life,” says “Poppins” director Rob Marshall. “Now fantasy is part of the reality.”
With the 1708-set “The Favourite,” Powell placed the men in courtly frou-frou to contrast with the more stripped-down look of the film’s key women. “I wanted the clothes to look like clothes, not outfits where someone is parading around in a period drama,” she says.
Keeping things real was one of Alexandra Byrne’s goals as costume designer on “Mary Queen of Scots,” which similarly focused on women in positions of power in the 1500s as men fluttered in the background. “I had to find a way to make the men look sexy and predatory to a contemporary audience,” she says. “But I didn’t want another revolving door of, ‘Here’s the queen in another frock.’”
Ultimately, she made every costume from denim, which molded to the body like a second skin. “We had to constantly balance the modern with the Elizabethan — so for example, we’d add a modern shirt cuff to an Elizabethan sleeve. That way, you could read the clothes as clothes and they could be accessible,”
Blending modern with traditional also came into play for “Colette,” in which the costumes had to follow the writer from her French countryside upbringing to her years experimenting with gender constructs. “She was a woman ahead of her time,” says costume designer Andrea Flesch. “She starts very simply in blacks, then little by little as she finds her character, you see that in her clothing — as it takes on more male elements, very strong and tailored.”
Yet costume is not just about setting the time and the atmosphere for the audience — it’s about placing the actor in both, too. And sometimes, the actor is the best arbiter of what her character should be wearing. Recalls “Colette” director Wash Westmoreland, star Keira Knightley wasn’t thrilled when she had to wear a sailor’s suit with a French Navy hat. Fortunately, Flesch had a backup: a dapper, fitted suit.
“It took our breath away,” says Westmoreland. “I felt I was in the presence of someone not only incredibly stylish, but infinitely wise.”