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Costume designers on re-creating the ’60s, ‘lapel literacy’ and clothing for actors who slouch

The designers of 2019’s most acclaimed films share their sartorial inspiration

How do you design a costume for a famous person playing another famous person? Do you lovingly re-create the looks you find in grainy newspaper photos? Or try to capture the spirit of your subject with all-new designs?

It’s a perennial dilemma for costume designers, and was the subject of much debate when The Envelope convened Ruth E. Carter (“Dolemite Is My Name”), Julian Day (“Rocketman”), Arianne Phillips (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), Sandy Powell (“The Irishman”), Paul Tazewell (“Harriet”), and Jany Temime (“Judy”) for a conversation.

Ruth, Julian and Jany, each of you is designing costumes in these films for performances about performers. Ruth, how much did you rely on the original “Dolemite” films in figuring out how Eddie Murphy should dress as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name”?

Carter: Eddie himself had been watching Rudy Ray Moore for 16 years, and it was a passion project for him. So I really wanted him to feel the character and to look like the character. When he’s playing Rudy Ray Moore and not [his stage persona] Dolemite, he had a different look to himself, and we came up with that because there weren’t a lot of images of him not being Dolemite. We really wanted to not make the ’70s one big blanket mockery and show that this was a stage performer that created a character.

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What were some of the inspirations for the offstage, out-of-character Rudy Ray Moore?

Carter: Eddie felt like [Moore] was a person who had a life. He wasn’t just a kid working in a record store in T-shirt and jeans. He is a grown man and he felt like we should embody someone who had a vibrant past. We decided to do these leisure suits, one was like a cinnamon color, and it just gave him more of a grown-up, managerial look for the record store.

Julian, Elton John has to be one of the most extravagantly costumed performers in history. To what degree were you trying to replicate particular looks that he wore on stage, and to what degree were you just trying to capture his extravagant spirit?

Day: I didn’t want to replicate every single item that he wore on stage. I got invited to go to Elton’s archive and have a look through the real costumes and his real clothing, which — there’s a lot of it. The Dodgers outfit, [for the concert at] Dodger Stadium, instead of just reproducing it exactly, I changed it. Instead of it being sequins and mirrors, I completely encrusted it in crystals. But mostly, I wanted to design my own Elton. When Elton saw the film, I wanted him to look at it and go, “I wish I’d worn that.”

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Was there a particular look that was important for Taron Egerton finding the character of Elton John?

Day: A lot of tiny shorts. When you look at pictures of Elton, he did like to wear just shorts — and Taron likes to just wear shorts as well. He almost feels more comfortable when he’s got less clothes on.

Jany, when you were designing Judy Garland’s stage looks, particularly focusing on this run of shows in London just months before she died in 1969, to what degree were you relying on original photography, and to what degree were you imagining things in the spirit of what she might have worn?

Temime: You had the same problems, Julian. When somebody has to sing something, they have to have the outfit helping them. So actually, I could not really copy Judy Garland. I had to adapt the costume she was wearing in order to have Renée [Zellweger] feeling Judy Garland.

Were there any particular looks that were crucial for Renée in finding the character?

Temime: The director wanted a dress with big flowers. Because she feels so miserable, and I suppose that you feel even more naked when you are wearing those big patterns and then you are on your own in front of the public and you don’t feel like you are the top of the world.

Paul, [in designing “Harriet”] did you look at other Hollywood portrayals of slavery, and were there particular things you were trying to do differently?

Tazewell: I remembered those films but I made sure to research from the originals, from the daguerreotypes of the period. This new photograph had been found of Harriet Tubman that was much younger than many of the photographs that exist of her. It was a photograph where she dressed up for a portrait, and it made my understanding of who she might have been much broader. There was a sense about her that cared about clothing and style and how her hair was dressed. Here is a 5-foot-1 African American woman who was enslaved, that freed herself and then helped to free hundreds of people. And that’s powerful. How do I present that character [to] a modern audience to understand what that was for her to do that?

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Sandy, Hollywood has been making movies about gangsters probably since before Hollywood — and gangsters. How did you think about approaching this milieu for “The Irishman”?

Powell: During my first meeting with Marty [Scorsese], he explained that these gangsters weren’t going to look like the “Goodfellas” gangsters. These were not showy, flashy, dandified gangsters. They had to go under the radar because they didn’t want to be noticed. And Frank Sheeran particularly, who’s the Robert De Niro character, is a hit man, and he certainly didn’t want to be recognized anywhere. [It was about] giving each of these individual guys characters and looks, yet not having anybody stand out too much in a crowd.

The costumes also have to help us tell them apart from one another and then the film hops around in time across four or five decades. I’m curious how you thought about, like, the lapel literacy of your audience as you were designing.

Powell: It is how you can tell the passage of time, with the clothes and the cars. But that’s not to say that when we did the ’50s everybody had the same lapel shape and the same tie shape, or the ’60s, not everybody had skinny ones, because people of different ages wear different clothes.

Arianne, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” is a movie about generational conflict within a moment. How did you approach that, and how did you think about that working with Quentin Tarantino on the film?

Phillips: From the get-go, it was very clear this film was about change, time changing, socially, economically, politically, and Hollywood changing. For a costume designer, it was a wonderful opportunity to set the tone with these larger crowd scenes of just the cross-section of Los Angeles at that time. Brad Pitt’s character, who plays a stuntman, is wearing jeans, because it’s work wear, and that’s what he does. And then you have the Manson “family” and the hippies who are wearing denim as more of this youth culture movement. My goal was to be able to tell stories with the background that would support the principals.

Powell: Don’t you think it’s important to point out that when we fit a crowd, we’re creating characters as well as the main actors that everyone sees? I think people don’t know that. We don’t just get bodies that we put in ’70s clothes or ’60s clothes.

Phillips: Absolutely. In this film, we had like 130 speaking parts, which meant that I was doing fittings all the time. I had my extras’ fittings in very close proximity so that I could literally go back and forth and see everyone. That was super-important, because to be able to tell Quentin’s story and show that change, you had to have your eye on everyone. 1969 is a really hard year.

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We have four films here that at least touch on Los Angeles in 1968, ’69 or ’70. What were the interesting references in trying to capture L.A., and what were the hardest looks to get right?

Carter: It’s a really incredibly colorful time, not only in fashion, with bell bottoms and platform shoes and Afros. We were coming out of civil rights and entering into the ’70s where there’s a new way of printing fabrics with synthetics. There was the hippies. There were the Black Panthers. There was the pimp style, and then there were the conservatives. And even the conservatives had wider lapels and bigger ties. I really wanted to exemplify all of those layers.

Julian, you and Arianne, both of your movies have parties either at Mama Cass’ house or Mama Cass is there. You’re capturing overlapping worlds. I’m curious how you thought about that L.A. arrival for Elton in the film.

Day: We shot it all in the U.K. I wanted to show this hippie lifestyle, this freedom that wasn’t necessarily there in the U.K. When they go to Mama Cass’ there’s all that freedom. But it was quite trying to get that across, shooting in a very cold — I think we shot it in winter. In a wood near a farm. It rained all night as well.

The first thing you do is you have a meeting with Marty. He speaks very fast, and you get a lot of information thrown out to you. You have to talk really quick back as well just to get everything in.
Sandy Powell

It looks like a swinging canyon house. Sandy, you’ve been working with Martin Scorsese since “Gangs of New York” in 2002, and I’m curious to hear what might have been different about this process.

Powell: The process is always the same. The first thing you do is you have a meeting with Marty. He speaks very fast, and you get a lot of information thrown out to you. You have to talk really quick back as well just to get everything in. [And you] always get a whole list of films to watch. When I first was on “Gangs of New York,” he’d say, “Oh, have you seen such-and-such film?” And I’d say, “No, I haven’t,” and then the next day it would arrive. I remember once him talking to me about a particular stripe on a collar and the way that it went. The next day, a film came. And I had to watch the entire film to see the collar that he was referring to.

Can you talk a little bit about Jimmy Hoffa, the most prominent real-world person that you’re re-creating?

Powell: Like Frank Sheeran says in the film, in the ’50s he was bigger than Elvis and in the ’60s he was bigger than the Beatles, and then suddenly he disappears. But the character himself, visually, is quite interesting. He was a working-class man, and he carried on being working-class and representing the working classes. So his look was pretty much off the peg, but he was always very well put together and had a real precision about him. Our aim with Al Pacino was to try and re-create that.

Last question: Which look was the hardest to get right?

Carter: I think the proportions for Eddie playing Dolemite. He’s used to wearing sweatpants and tennis shoes every day. And now we’re coming into the matador pant, which was the higher waist, and we had to get the pant leg right. And he had very tailored clothing that fit a certain way where the jacket was long.

Day: Taron is very physical in the film. Some of the costumes are very exaggerated. So [it was] just about him being comfortable in them — or not if the scene determined. Just the sort of practicality of them.

Phillips: I had a story with two fictional characters set against real-life events with a cast of real-life characters. So that merging of two worlds, I thought, was the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity.

Powell: The challenge was figuring out how I could make these guys who were having to play versions of themselves 30, 40 years earlier — how to do that with clothes. And then coming to the realization that it wasn’t the actual clothes that was going to make them appear younger. It was them, and how they wore them, and how they stood, and what their posture was.

They ended up hiring a movement coach who was on set every single day, and I’d be tapping him on the shoulder saying, “Go and tell him. He’s moving too slowly. He’s got to react quicker, and stand up straight.” There were times where I actually wished I had a cattle prod and I could have just sort of given them a little prod to remind someone to put their shoulders back.

Tazewell: Chasing down all of the men and their collars and ties and cravats and keeping that all together. It was really a nightmare starting at 4 in the morning.

Temime: Renée wanted to stand like Judy Garland in ’69, which was like [hunches her shoulders forward]. So I had to cut all the dresses with a round back. And I was very afraid that she would stand up, and then the dress would collapse. But she’s such an amazing actress. She spent the whole film like that.

You needed the reverse cattle prod to get her to slouch.

Temime: It was like a nightmare in construction and in tailoring, but it works, because she looks like a sick person, which she wanted.

Costume designers for Oscars Roundtable
Costume designers for Oscars Roundtable. Ruth E. Carter of “Dolemite Is My Name,” left, Jany Temime of “Judy,” Paul Tazewell of “Harriet,” Arianne Phillips of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Sandy Powell of “The Irishman” and Julian Day of “Rocketman.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


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