Costume designer Ann Roth has collaborated with actress Meryl Streep for four decades on films such as “Silkwood,” “Heartburn,” “The Post” and “Julie & Julia,” creating wardrobes that have helped the actor navigate a wide range of roles.
While Streep has been nominated for Academy Awards five times in their 13 films together, Roth notes that the costumes the actor wears do not wear her; it’s the other way around. “I’m just there to help her find the character,” she explains.
Here, Roth reflects on some of those costumes and how they came to be designed.
This was the film that began the pair’s partnership. The movie called for Streep, who stars as whistleblower Karen Silkwood, the real-life nuclear factory worker who witnesses unsafe practices at the plant, to wear denim jackets and cowboy boots with T-shirts — when she wasn’t in her hazmat suit at the factory.
“I looked at photographs of Karen Silkwood in Tulsa in the ’70s. [Director] Mike Nichols wanted Cher [who plays Karen’s co-worker and roommate] and Meryl to be Snow White and Rose Red,” Roth recalls, adding, “He wanted Meryl to be beautiful and blond and Cher to be the exotic brunet. Meryl and I met in Manhattan, and we had photos of Karen Silkwood, and she had brown hair and a little bit of a shag.”
Streep came to set in a short denim skirt, a denim jacket and cowboy boots — and brown hair. “You don’t see [Meryl],” Roth says. “You see the character.”
Julie & Julia
Roth designed costumes for two worlds for Nora Ephron’s 2009 film — a contemporary one with Amy Adams as blogger Julie Powell and a period one with Streep as culinary legend Julia Child.
For Streep, Roth says, “it was all about height.” Child was 6 feet 2 inches tall, so “I had the shoemaker make me three pairs of spectator shoes that made Meryl, who is 5 feet 6 inches, look taller.” Roth also points out that the counters and stoves were built at a lower height to accentuate the illusion of a towering Child.
Roth cheated on waistlines when designing skirts and created all of the character’s shirts to faithfully replicate Child’s iconic TV look. From girdles to gloves to a stiff toque blanche, whatever Streep wore in the film helped her exude the essence of America’s “French Chef.”
Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic school in 1964, in the John Patrick Shanley film. With Streep covered in a black habit and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, she uses slight expressions, from the arching of a brow to an intimidating glare, to maximum effect. But one part of the costume was handmade.
“All the actresses playing nuns wanted to make those heavy-knitted shawls they wear,” Roth says. “Meryl knitted hers, and she finished hers first. It was so heavy.”
In their most recent collaboration, for Steven Spielberg, Streep plays Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. She wears pussy-bow blouses and skirt suits that ooze Graham’s power.
“I love all the costumes in this film,” Roth says fondly. “When you see the ’70s Gucci prints she wears later in the movie as Kay’s confidence grows, we had to [outsource] that. We didn’t have enough fabric. I had a dear friend in New Jersey make it.”