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Flamboyant costumes for 'Florence Foster Jenkins' mirror the real-life inspiration

The first time audiences see Meryl Streep portraying real-life New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, she’s dressed in a lavish, white satin winged-angel costume, suspended in the air during a performance one could graciously call awkward, though no one dared.

Costume designer Consolata Boyle earned her second Oscar nomination for making that surreal world come alive in director Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a comedic take on the wealthy, music-loving New York socialite who ingloriously sang once at Carnegie Hall.

“If you entered into her world, you had to keep to the rules. Everyone was part of the conspiracy that kept her going and convinced that she could sing. The musical world of New York benefited hugely because she supported so many young musicians as well as her own performances,” Boyle said.

Jenkins’ combination of delusion, naiveté and gobs of money allowed Boyle to match the heiress’ real-life flamboyance with equally outrageous costumes.

“It was really a joyous project to do from a costume point of view,” said Boyle, speaking from her home city of Dublin. “We did masses of research in the New York Public Library, Carnegie Hall and all the social magazines and social sections of newspapers of the periods.” She struck costume gold. The historic images let Boyle lavish her leading lady with childlike pastels,  furs, flowers, ruffles, elaborate hats, “massive amounts of costume jewelry” and much more.

“She invested a lot of money in the fabrics, particularly for her performance outfits. There were a lot of pure silks and metallics — gold, silver, tulle — in those costumes,” Boyle said.

The angel was one of Jenkins’ favorites and, added Boyle, “a very typical Florence outfit. It says everything about her.”  Boyle, who earned her first Oscar nomination for “The Queen,” says the costumes helped Jenkins function as the royal ruler of her own, luscious world. 

“I thought, like many women of that period, that she would have had dressmakers. She would have contributed hugely to how she dressed. And the gloriously amateurish costumes — she would have been very, very closely involved, and made some of it herself,” Boyle said.

The story, and the clothes, explore a tension between fact and fiction, a dynamic that Boyle examined with Streep, who earned her 20th Oscar nomination with the role.

“We spoke for many hours in advance of starting work, discussing the character and every nuance, the complexity of the woman that Florence Foster Jenkins was,” Boyle said. “Everything [Streep] said was wise. She understands the process and knows how to wear a costume. We continued speaking the whole way through about every single aspect of the costumes we were doing.”

In recognition of Streep’s command of costume language, she will be given the Distinguished Collaborator award at the 19th Costume Designers Guild Awards on Tuesday in Beverly Hills. Some of the costumes also are displayed at the “Art of Motion Picture Costume Design” exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

Boyle has worked with Streep before, dressing her for the actress’ convincing turn as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” In both projects, the designer found Streep to be a willing risk taker, even if the choices were unflattering or dangerously comic. For “Florence,” Streep wore mounds of body padding to portray the food- and fashion-loving New York socialite.

“Florence herself was quite a well-built, solid woman. There weren’t any curves,” said Boyle. Excess plays well on-screen, in the right hands. You can sense Streep’s delight in her costumes, especially the stage wear.

“Florence was always embellishing, decorating; it was just part of her,” Boyle said. “She loved pieces that moved, like the kind of trembling headdress and scarves that floated. Meryl loved that as well.”

Now Boyle has another dressing challenge ahead — what she’ll wear to the Oscar ceremony. She’s selected Irish designer Louise Kennedy to make her outfit.

“It’s very simple because my life is spent surrounded by costumes clothes, accessories,” Boyle said. “So I always ask for something very pared back and simple. That’s the way I try to control things.”

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