Q&A

The Costumes: 'Brooklyn's' immigrant tale dressed in Irish, American style

In John Crowley's sensitive period film "Brooklyn," veteran costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux reimagines the disparate sartorial colors of midcentury Brooklyn and Ireland, showcasing how well they mesh on-screen.

The film's lead character, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), is a young woman journeying from her small Irish village to Brooklyn and then back again across the seas, falling in love on both sides of the Atlantic. Ultimately, she learns what it is to live confidently in her own dreams.

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"It was always important that we made her believable and not have a parade of expensive costumes," says Dicks-Mireaux. "She needed to look real yet also really good on screen." The longtime BBC designer says the clothes and their colors provided the perfect platform for Eilis to tell her own poignant and moving story. "And that's what it's all about, really, helping the character tell their story."

What led you to choose the color palette you did? It was bold but subtle at the same time.

It was just an intuitive thing, really. I knew there was a big difference between the '50s clothes of Britain and Ireland and what they were wearing in America. We met with the production team and talked about it: If you were coming from Ireland at that time, what would strike you most? The colors, really, because this is just coming out of the postwar rations era.

There's also much non-color: black and white, cream and ivory, which Saoirse looks lovely in, as well.

That came out of the decisions of how we'd handle the shop [where Eilis works in Brooklyn], whether they'd wear a uniform or not. I remember working in a similar kind of shop myself where you're asked to wear a certain kind of costume, so we decided black was a good way of doing that in the store. So they all wore black and even Jessica Paré [Miss Fortini, Eilis' store manager] wore a black suit. We thought it would make it easy for the audience to understand the shop assistant role.

How did that great, structured, yellow 1950s dress come about?

The yellow dress has a little story to it. We did the initial fitting [with Saoirse] in London and the costume house I used had a good deal of clothes from the period — from both Britain and America. But I found this yellow dress in a shop in Montreal. It reminded me of a dress my mother had worn that was very structured and '50s. So I loved this dress and I thought even if it's not right for Saoirse, it's such a pretty dress it could be right for someone else. I had no idea whether that yellow would suit Saoirse. We got inspired just a bit by a very young Grace Kelly look.

The beautiful burnt-orange paprika wedding suit, that was American, yes?

Yes, quite American. It was gabardine and I found that in Montreal as well. It was exciting that I could shop in London and Montreal both; I got the pretty navy top with shells [in Montreal] as well as the multi-colored skirt she wears a lot. The wonderful green bathing suit I got in London.

I like the fact that Eilis wore her clothes multiple times; not wearing something new and bright in every scene.

Yes. I didn't want that thing where the woman is of limited means and has tons of great clothes changes, never re-wearing anything. She was not a girl of a lot of means; she was just a working girl in a department store. So I wanted to make her wardrobe what she'd possibly really wear. John's only real instruction was to make her very real and natural all the way through, a very real journey from Ireland to America and then coming back to Ireland a very different person, though somebody you'd still like. We had to like her always.

How did Saoirse interact with the costume process?

Oh, she was fantastic and trusted you completely. I said to her, "We're just going to start to see what works on you; I'll suggest things and then with each outfit we discuss what we don't like. She was definitely quite strong on what she didn't like; but it's always good to try on something you don't like so you can see better what works. And basically she just let me create this wardrobe and let me choose the costume for each scene and I'd explain why I thought this or that would work for each setting. She had questions, but she had so much else to do that she just felt it was better to get on with it and let me get on with it.

How did you choose the teal-red-cream multi-colored skirt for the scene against the wall after she comes back from Ireland? That was an important visual moment.

Saoirse chose it. That was the only thing she asked: "Can I wear this skirt in the final scene?" I said, "I don't mind." And then we went to John and we did a separate fitting for the final scene and he was really happy. It was one of the few skirts in her wardrobe and she didn't want to be in a dress. It did come out beautifully in the photos. She wears it at Coney Island and at the beach in Ireland, as well.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Dressing for `Brooklyn' - THE COSTUMES" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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