Designing costumes for black & white ‘Mank’ is more fun than it sounds

Sketches of costume designs by Trish Summerville for the Marion Davies character and Herman Mankiewicz in “Mank.”
(Illustrations by Gloria Young Kim)

When director David Fincher called to tell costume designer Trish Summerville that his long talked-about film “Mank” — starring Gary Oldman as “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz — had gotten the green light, she knew it was destined to be “smart, funny, poignant, beautiful; it would tick all the boxes!”

“I definitely jumped at the chance,” says Summerville, who worked with Fincher on numerous other projects, though never before on a black and white feature film. “Besides a great story, with David I knew it was going to be incredible. I love working with him, and aside from this, he’s one of my favorite humans.”

"Mank" costume designer Trish Summerville.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

What are the specific costume design challenges filming in black and white?


Color is the biggest. Not surprisingly, figuring out what colors, patterns and prints work well in black and white is a long process. You can end up with what I call the confetti look, as it’s shocking how vibrant things show up and how scattered they look on film. With patterns, prints or stripes you go very tonal; you don’t want to be high contrast in any way, as that makes it much more vibrant on film.
What was the big surprise in this color selection process?

Realizing colors that look fantastic on black and white film are really horrible colors together in real life [laughs]. It was chartreuse and salmon and lavender. So different scenes had light pinks and periwinkles and light lavender, with dark jewel tones of that same color. We kept as few colors in a room as possible, then put in lights and darks of that same color.

Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst in "Mank."
Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst in “Mank.”

And oddly, things you imagine are, say, navy on film, are in fact probably red. The whole thing is tricky, as a lot of colors soak up light or become extra saturated or go totally flat. Everything had to go through a photography process: ties, even buttons — because with the naked eye some things look good, but in black and white it doesn’t work at all. It was challenging but also a lot of fun.

What color are Mank’s main suits?

We kept him in browns and grays. We have a lot of men in the film, so we literally made charts of what Mank wears when and with whom so we could make them all contrast. When you don’t have color, it’s the tone or pattern that matters so it doesn’t look like you’re wearing the exact same thing everywhere all the time. We did the same thing with ties, lapels, pockets, etc. We got very minutiae in knowing what was where and mixed with who and what.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and James McShane as Shelly Metcalf in "Mank".
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and James McShane as Shelly Metcalf in “Mank”.

How involved was Amanda Seyfried in her costume fittings?

She was great about coming in for so many fittings. We did the clothes in muslin first, and she was so patient and lovely and was really excited about having these clothes made for her. I remember her young daughter was at one fitting of the lamé gown, and her daughter said, “Mama, you look beautiful! You look like a princess!” That was a really sweet moment.

What can you tell us about Davies’ lamé dress; what color was it actually?

It wasn’t a 14-karat kind of gold but a deep antique-gold color, really beautiful. I found the fabric and the fabric dictated the design of the gown. It was almost like mercury it was so liquid and glowing, and I knew I wanted a dramatic low back. We draped it all because depending on what direction you place it, it looks totally different.

Amanda Seyfried in "Mank" as Marion Davies in "Mank." NETFLIX

And then all the gorgeous diamond lapel clips and pins. Were the majority vintage or crafted?

They were rhinestones and original 1930s pieces. Most were multifunctional: You could wear them as a brooch, as lapel clips or even belt buckles. In the ‘30s, earrings weren’t as big a trend. In our research, we found very few women with anything other than a small stud. Women wore a lot of brooches, rings and then many necklaces.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in 'Mank'
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in ‘Mank’

What about the shimmering Marion Davies dress with that wonderful cape when she’s filming and talking with Mank?

The dress she has on underneath is white fagoted chiffon, and the cape was a kind of puckered ecru satin, so there was a lot of texture and light.

How involved was Gary Oldman in his costumes?


With Gary, we wanted to show his age progression, his weight gain and his alcoholism. He put on about 15 pounds, which helped us a lot. So even if his pants were high-waisted, we put the pants under his belly with suspenders, giving him that old and heavy look; we made his shirts tighter around his neck so I could pull up the extra skin. He’s a great sport for all of that.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in "Mank."
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in “Mank.”

Did you design everything from scratch for the amazing costume party at Hearst Castle?

We based it on real life, actually. Davies held a circus party the year the film is set, and we found lots of photographs. Western Costume brought trucks of costumes to San Simeon to dress all the guests, so some folks looked good and some not so good. I loved Bette Davis, who had an organza plaid dress with big sleeves and was the bearded lady, and I thought, “Isn’t that like Bette Davis: ‘Oh, after cocktails I’ll just put on a beard and be done with it.’”

A sketch of a costume design by Trish Summerville
A sketch of a costume design by Trish Summerville for the William Randolph Hearst character during the circus party in “Mank.”
(Gloria Young Kim/Netflix)

Hearst had a lamé suit on in real life [and in the film] but with a massive red polka-dot bow tie that looked too clownish; I scaled it down so he looked like a ringmaster. Marion’s [drum majorette] outfit is a white silk satin and taken from what Marion wore at the party, and we added the fun details and feathers. There were no party photos of Louis B. Mayer, so I thought of MGM and made him a lion tamer with a lion’s head brooch as a fun detail.


I like the way you use the word “fun” so often to describe your experiences working on the film.

It was and is fun. I always say we’re just gypsies — vagabonds who form these tribes of weird families who go from place to place to create art: I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.