×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Costume Designers Help Establish a Film’s Point of View at First Look

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.

“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,”
she says.

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.”

More Film

  • Octavia Spencer Bryce Dallas Howard

    Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard to Reunite for Comedy 'Fairy Tale Ending'

    Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard will reunite for the ensemble comedy “Fairy Tale Ending.” Jim Hecht (“Ice Age: The Meltdown) and Tracy McMillan (“Marvel’s Runaways”) are writing the screenplay. Howard will also produce the Universal movie through her Nine Muses Entertainment alongside Eric Carlson and Susan Carlson. Seth MacFarlane and Erica Huggins will produce [...]

  • Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at DuArt

    Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at New York's DuArt Film Labs, Dies at 88

    Robert Smith, a longtime executive with New York’s DuArt Film Labs, died Jan. 11 in Montvale, N.J. He was 88. Smith spent some 62 years with DuArt, the film processing and post-production facility founded in 1922 in the penthouse of an automobile garage in Midtown. Smith rose to president of DuArt before retiring in 2015. [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]

  • 'Ghostbusters': First Look at Jason Reitman's

    Watch the First Teaser for Jason Reitman's 'Ghostbusters' Sequel

    If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, it’s time to watch a teaser for Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” forthcoming film. Sony Pictures released a first look at the upcoming movie, a sequel to the 1984 classic. The footage shows a glimpse of the memorable station wagon Ecto-1. The studio announced on Tuesday that the wheels are [...]

  • Anne Hathaway

    Anne Hathaway to Star in Robert Zemeckis' 'The Witches' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Anne Hathaway has closed a deal to star as the Grand High Witch in Robert Zemeckis and Warner Bros.’ “The Witches” adaptation. Variety first reported that Hathaway was holding the offer for both that and “Sesame Street,” and at the time, scheduling for both films were holding up dealmaking. With those issues settled, Hathaway is [...]

  • Film Ratings Overhauled in the U.K.,

    Film Ratings Overhauled in the U.K. With Tougher Restrictions on Sexual Content

    The body that oversees film ratings in the U.K. is tightening its age restrictions and giving movies with certain types of sexual content older age ratings. The British Board of Film Classification said the changes were in response to public demand after a consultation that took in the views of over 10,000 people in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content