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Costume Designers Mix Historical Accuracy With Modern Flair for Period Pics

Costume Design Oscars Race Billie Holiday
United States vs. Billie Holiday: Takashi Seida/Hulu; Mank: Netflix; Emma: Focus Features

Research may be the cornerstone of any historically accurate project, but it’s only when artisans know the rules that they can break them. The costume designers behind some of this year’s period films allowed their research to guide them in balancing context with storytelling.

Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne immersed herself in the1800s setting of Focus Features’ “Emma” starring Anya Taylor-Joy. It was a time when ladies fashion magazines were just entering circulation; the fashion plates included in each issue were engraved and then hand-colored. As with fabric dye lots, each varied slightly depending on which artist completed the work.

Like those artists, the women of the villages would then reinterpret the designs based on their own sewing skills, finances and tastes. “Twenty women could look at the same fashion plate image and you’d get 20 interpretations,” says Byrne.

But it’s not enough to research magazines of the period, the real key is in the analysis. “It would be like somebody researching [this period based on] the editions of Vogue. We know that’s not how we live,” says Byrne. “So you have to interpret your research, and quite a lot of letters and written journals, to help you understand the reality of their lives.”

A starched-linen cravat and collar were the epitome of status for men of the period. Byrne relays a description she read of a gentleman dressing with his valet. “The cravat and collar [were] so starched that he [had] to point his chin up to the ceiling,” she recalls, “and then when the cravat [was] tied, he lowers his chin and hears the cracking of the starch.” Stories like these provided Byrne with a feel for the period that static images alone couldn’t deliver.

In a time when bathing and laundering of clothes was infrequent, a clearly — and cleanly — starched cravat and collar broadcast wealth and status in a way that a good wash can’t today.

Four-time Emmy nominated costume designer Paolo Nieddu reflects on similar concepts with regard to his work on Hulu’s “The United States vs Billie Holiday” starring Andra Day in the title role.

Nieddu speculates that people’s approach towards fashion was different because “there wasn’t this H&M, fast-fashion world” in the 1940s and 1950s of the film’s setting.

The project’s costumes incorporate new designs with period pieces and audiences will be able to spot an authentic lamé dress Billie [Day] wears while running in the rain. “Every time she wore it, we had to reinforce the thread because it was so vintage,” says Nieddu. “You would forget [but] my God, this thread is pushing 80 years old. These are senior citizen-aged clothes. You have to treat them very, very gently.”

Working with true period pieces also means designers can’t fall back on the spares they normally make in case of emergency. There weren’t any doubles on any of the jewelry, either. It was all “a hope and a prayer,” notes Nieddu.

The team was lucky with all, except for one loss. “There’s one scene in the hotel where one of the [vintage] earrings flew off [of Day] and it was not to be found again to this day,” says Nieddu.

“You have to stay calm,” he reflects. Situations invariably arise on set, though the team’s ability to adapt means the loss — while “devastating” to Nieddu — will likely remain overlooked by audiences. “It was in the middle of the shot, as they’re filming, and so we had to fake it,” he adds.

Emmy-winning costume designer Trish Summerville of Netflix’s “Mank” worked in a slightly earlier period than Nieddu — the 1930s and ’40s. In accordance with her colleagues, Summerville reflects that the way people actually procured their clothing influenced fashion itself.

“I think that fashion was a bit more contained prior to the ’60s,” says Summerville of what people wore and how they shopped. JC Penney and Sears catalogs sold everything from diamond rings to wallpaper and fur coats to kids’ clothes. “It’s a really concise [examination] of daily life in America, of how people lived, and it gave you all variances of economical range in that book,” she adds.

For Byrne, Nieddu and Summerville, while the general details from the respective periods are as accurate as possible — fabric, fit, blends and weights, for instance — it doesn’t mean that everything on screen is precisely as it was then.

None of these three films purports to be a real-life documentary and the costume designers all agree that their work, above all, involved communicating a visual story.

One place where this came up for Summerville was during the circus dinner party scene at William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle. The characters were based on real people who were known “because of their wealth, their notoriety, their celebrity-ism being movie stars,” says Summerville. While she tried to re-create the looks as much as possible, she didn’t shy away from improving upon them in terms of “fit and form of the costumes [which were] bumped up a little bit.”

While the real-life Hearst was the epitome of wealth, his lamé jacket was “really ill-fitting in the original documentations we saw,” says Summerville. Because he tells an important story during the scene, “I wanted it to be more serious and I wanted him to be distinguished-looking.”

Summerville thought the poor fit of the original jacket would give a slightly comical edge to an otherwise serious moment. After all, when people get dressed for the day, it’s without prior knowledge of anything significant to come — and the beauty of film is that there’s no need to rely on hindsight.

Nieddu echoes the same sentiment of his project. “We’re creating our own Billie Holiday,” he says. “We were always trying to take all of the things that we loved about Billie’s look and just incorporate them into the feeling of how we costumed Andra.”

For Byrne, too, there were blends of the historical with a new interpretation, not just in style but also in the build of the costumes themselves. Byrne loves the leather buckskin breeches from museums, but they’re not always practical for film since the stretch in the leather doesn’t look as tailored after certain activities, like horseback riding.

“I used a trick that I had learned from doing superhero films,” says Byrne, who designed Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016), “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), among many others. By bonding the leather with a stretch fuse to Lycra, which improves the fabric memory, costumes hold their shape better. Then, says Byrne, “when you’ve shot a riding sequence and the actor dismounts, you have perfectly fitting breeches rather than a sad, soggy looking seat.”

It’s no secret that putting on just the right outfit for an event is transformative in real life, and that holds true for film costumes as well. “The biggest compliment,” says Summerville of seeing the actors dressed, “is seeing it help transform them to where they want to be as this character.”

And, regardless of the elements that are rooted in research or subject to a bit of creative interpretation, it’s all about telling a story in a way that hasn’t been explored before.