Designers Behind ‘Shirley,’ ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and ‘Promising Young Woman’ Discuss the Craft

Promising Young Woman Shirley Hillbilly Elegy
Shirley: Neon; Promising Young Woman: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features; Hillbilly Elegy: Lacey Terrell/Netflix

Hair, make-up and costumes are all are powerful tools in storytelling and each add to the authenticity of the narrative. For “Shirley,” costume designer Amela Baksic immersed herself in researching archival photos of horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson. She also relied on Life magazine photo essays to look at college life in the 1940s.

“Those archives provided me with examples of clothes that expressed a bohemian quality of student life that was casual and relaxed,” Baksic says.

Since so much of the film was about Jackson’s mind and the struggles of the creative writing process, Baksic says the key was “to fit Elisabeth Moss in a range of costumes that would enhance her inner moods and different personas.”

Those costumes ranged from slips and house dresses to reflect the different moods of Shirley. “She wore [those] when she was depressed and catatonic, as opposed to a more masculine look of plaids and cardigans when she was in the act of writing.”

Baksic’s costume design wasn’t just about the clothing, it was about the color and detail in the pattern. “The olive cotton dress with red circles reminded us of the chaos of Shirley’s thoughts. The pink, green and black rhomboid pattern dress that Shirley wears to a confrontational dinner evokes aggression and power. The floral print blouse for the party signals failed attempt at domesticity. As opposed to pattern, simple white cotton nightgown in the pivotal woods scene appears ghostly and otherworldly.”

When Nancy Steiner read the script for “Promising Young Woman,” she felt inclined to go “dark and sad because the character seemed like a depressed and sad person,” Steiner says of her initial reaction to Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, an avenging angel who seeks out to right the wrongs of the past with revenge on would-be rapists. While Cassie isn’t based on any real-life person, her story is a modern one set within a familiar world where she wears contemporary clothing.

But Cassie has a façade, one that is happy and cheery. Steiner says, “That is a costume, as well as the one she puts on at night because on the inside she is broken.” The pink robe Cassie wears when she’s home reflects how she had never progressed.

When Cassie was out at night, Steiner dressed Mulligan’s character in strapless dresses and big earrings to have her fit in to “the clientele of the bar.”

It’s not just costume that transforms a character, it’s the hair and makeup also. In Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” Glenn Close transforms into Mamaw, who comes to her grandson’s rescue and is the glue that keeps her family together. Padding added weight to Close, and prosthetics created by make-up designer Matthew Mungle added that sense of realism to Close’s physicality.

Head of makeup Eryn Krueger Mekash spent time applying the pieces Mungle had created and would paint Close’s face. “The paint aged Glenn because she wanted to have more texture and more of a sun-touched look. It made her a little rough around the edges,” Mekash notes.

All the details contribute to the mise-en-scene. “Rose’s pale yellow becomes violent gold yellow, signaling character transformation,” says Baksic of that detail to show, the key is indeed in the design.