Dressed to Regress
Maybe electric orange go-go boots, brocade Nehru jackets and crocheted mini-dresses aren’t your bag, baby, but to fans of Austin Powers they are simply smashing.
The mod costumes in the 1997 film “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” captured the fancy of moviegoers and fashion watchers everywhere. This summer, costume designer Deena Appel is out to do it again. She has created hundreds of hyper-chromatic outfits for the sequel, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which opens June 11.
In the film, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) travels back to 1969 London to track down his mojo, or sexual prowess, which was stolen by a time-traveling Dr. Evil (also played by Myers.) Along the way, the international man of mystery meets his match in CIA operative Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham).
“The costumes are very much inspired by the British music scene. A lot of Austin came from George Harrison, combined with a little Mick Jagger,” says Appel, who is based in Los Angeles.
The 1969 London depicted in parts of “The Spy Who Shagged Me” contrasts with the 1967 London of the first film. There are differences in the costumes, too.
“My favorite shorthand for describing the difference is that 1968 is when the Beatles went to India,” Appel says. “There was a metamorphosis in their look. I wanted to give the costumes a similar metamorphosis with ethnic touches like Felicity’s crocheted mini-dress and Austin’s Nehru jacket.”
Other influences were ‘60s fashion designers Rudi Gernreich, best known for creating the topless bathing suit, and Paco Rabanne, a pioneer for using alternative materials such as plastic, paper and metal discs for inventive clothes.
“There was not an issue of practicality back then. No one cared. It was about having a sense of humor, which sometimes we don’t have anymore in clothes,” she says.
To research the period, Appel studied films from the mid- to late 1960s, as well as episodes of TV’s “The Avengers” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” She scoured Life magazine for reality and British Vogue for fashion.
She shopped New York for groovy fabrics for Austin’s clothes, gathering thousands of swatches.
“We veered away from purple, orange and green, which were fun at that time but colors Mike wasn’t comfortable in. If it were up to him, he would have worn the blue velvet suit from the first movie all the way through the second one.” (He does favor blues and reds in the sequel.)
And unlike model Elizabeth Hurley, who played the female lead role in the first film, Heather Graham is not a fashion enthusiast.
“Heather is happy in a pair of baggy pants and a tight T-shirt,” Appel says. “But she was a good sport, being put in the position of being a Barbie doll.”
Each of Graham’s 14 costumes took multiple fittings.
“That takes a lot of energy when clothes are not your bag,” says Appel.
Graham’s Felicity is an American living in London who has invented herself as the female Austin Powers.
“I wanted her to be as colorful and flamboyant as him,” Appel says. “But where Austin’s clothes are about pattern and texture, Felicity’s are about silhouette and details.”
Felicity first appears in a sleek racing suit with butterfly-embroidered boots.
“We wanted to introduce her character in a strong silhouette,” Appel explains. “Once we established her style, we got a little more playful. The pink and orange crocheted dress is a piece that is very provocative, but soft at the same time, with flouncy sleeves.”
Myers wanted his co-star to wear a female symbol around her neck to counter Austin’s male-symbol necklace.
“I did a variety of necklaces, a brass choker with a brass female symbol, and a silver symbol which she wears on suede, and on a silver collar,” Appel says.
Even more challenging than creating swinging styles for Felicity and Austin was outfitting the diabolical Dr. Evil and Scottish spy Fat Bastard--both characters also played by Myers.
Creating Camp, Not
While she went crazy with color for Austin’s psychedelic world, Appel used monochromatic grays, whites and blacks for Dr. Evil’s costumes. His suit with banded collar is a holdover from the first film, although it is given some pizazz for a trip to the moon. Uniforms for Dr. Evil’s army are made from pressed vinyl with zippers beginning at the throat and running diagonally down to the ankle, and fencing masks double as space helmets.
“The Spy Who Shagged Me” reportedly had a $30-million budget, a modest sum by industry standards. Production company New Line Cinema would not say how much was spent on costumes, but Appel insists her low-tech approach to the space outfits was more about creating camp than pinching pennies.
“In 1960s film, you weren’t making a scientifically correct multimillion-dollar vacuum-formed helmet. It’s about appreciating the low tech,” she says.
Special effects wizard Stan Winston created a 50-pound suit out of latex to transform Myers into the 500-pound Fat Bastard. A kilt fit to the character’s 70-inch waist was Appel’s most expensive and complicated costume.
On the opposite end of the scale is Mini-Me, the one-eighth-sized clone of Dr. Evil. For this character, Appel had to scale down Dr. Evil’s costumes to fit 2-foot, 8-inch actor Verne Troyer.
A team of eight worked with Appel on costumes for Myers’ three characters at a shop at Universal Studios, while another seamstress and her shop worked on the day players. A third seamstress and her army was used to build costumes for Dr. Evil’s army.
Appel says she was tempted to call in a name fashion designer to provide the wardrobe for the present-day fashion extravaganza scene with Rebecca Romijn and Kristen Johnston.
Instead, she created her own looks--fur coats and bikinis. Johnston, a champion of animal rights, balked at wearing fur, so Appel’s team whipped up the white faux fur coats seen in the film.
Although she has enjoyed accolades for her work on the Austin Powers films, Appel says it’s a shame only outlandish costumes get attention.
“Costume design is a storytelling tool,” says the designer, whose credits also include “8 Seconds,” “Now and Then” and the upcoming “Mystery Alaska.”
In today’s world of the fashion stylist, costume designers are a dying breed, she says.
“In film, the thinking is that you only need a costume designer when you are doing a historical piece. For a contemporary piece you can just call up Donna Karan or Calvin Klein to do all the wardrobe,” she says.
Costumes are equally important in contemporary film.
“ ‘Thelma and Louise’ is a great example. The costumes in the film are very different from beginning to end, but while the women are on their journey, the transition is seamless. That’s what the collaboration of filmmaking is all about. A lot of studios have lost sight of costume design as a craft.”
E-mail Booth Moore at email@example.com.