Paco Delgado did his homework to design ‘Les Misérables’ costumes


There’s no arguing that Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is a big film. It is based on both a very big book by Victor Hugo and a stage version that has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries. It is a tale of big ideas and social upheavals. The film runs more than 21/2 hours, and it sports a cast of more than 200 credited roles and masses of extras. And it was definitely a big job for costume designer Paco Delgado, who had to create approximately 2,200 costumes for a time period that spanned much of the first half of the 19th century. And for his efforts, Delgado earned an Oscar nomination last week.

But first Delgado had to catch up on the story. He’d always meant to read the book but hadn’t gotten to it before taking on the job (“It is so huge!”). So, he went at it full bore — reading it “in planes, in the tube, while in cars, in the bath” — and found it immensely helpful. “You get all this description of daily life at that time in Paris: what people ate, what they were wearing, how the streets looked and the social positions of people. It gave me a frame to start visualizing things. I was in Paris doing research and stayed on a small side street, and the chapter I read there mentioned the street Marius’ grandfather had built his palace on, and it was the same street! I thought that was amazing.”


How did you arrive at Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean silhouette?

One of the things Tom wanted for [Valjean] was to portray that he had a journey into sainthood somehow. He thought he was a man with a quest. He wanted to show at the beginning that he was a really rough person, and little by little he got more sophisticated. So we started with a very dramatic color, a really bright red color, in the jail and used rough textures, rough linens and coarse wools, and as he gets more sophisticated his palette gets more sophisticated. By the end of the film we wanted to show him in a Minimalistic aura, a whitish, monkish look. I took this from a Goya painting. We did a lot with paintings, Delacroix, Goya, [Jacques-Louis] David, Ingres — after all, paintings were the photography and journalism of the period.

What was the film’s overall palette?

One of the things we looked at in the period’s paintings was that it was a very patriotic moment in history and especially in France. It was a time of defining individual freedom and the foundations of the democracy we now have. So most of the period’s paintings had a lot of repetition of red, white and blue, and we tried to use that patriotic French palette through the movie.

And specifically red.

Red is a very dramatic color. It’s also the color the eye picks up first: Six different colors and the first one the eye sets on is red. Red has so many connotations: It is danger, it is blood. If you are driving and you see danger signs, what color are they? But it’s also a color with a lot of power. The use of red for us was much more emotional, on an emotional level, to portray people who were in danger or who had fallen from grace — also, the bravery that red implies.

Russell Crowe wore blue with silver-gray tones.

Javert is a monotype character: He varies, but he hasn’t got the variety that Jean Valjean has. He’s a very solid character. We thought we wanted to start in a very light blue and go darker and darker until we get something almost like black. That idea came from talking with Russell; he wanted the character to have a development in the movie. And I knew that I wanted him to look very much the same all the time since he was really the same person until the very end, when he breaks down and realizes that Jean Valjean’s attitude is based on goodness.

How did the bright colors of the Thénardiers appear?

It’s a story that has so much grief that to have these kinds of characters is a blessing, so it was good to change your palette and get into the comedy act. And just by chance, when talking to Helena Bonham Carter [Madame Thénardier] early on, she said, “Do you know my mother’s Spanish?” I started to think about putting Spanish elements to her costume. Since there was permeability at the borders back then, I thought of the Thénardiers as magpies, stealing things from here and there, so that’s what I did for her. A lot of her corset and sleeves came from a very old matador outfit I had.

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Did Anne Hathaway have a lot of input into the development of Fantine’s costume and overall look?

Yes, definitely. First thing, she’s a very committed actress, and she wanted to bring a physical attitude to the character. She wanted to emaciate herself because she wanted to have a proper look of someone who didn’t eat. And we talked a lot about that. What can we do to make her seem even thinner, shadow the costumes on the side, etc.? And the color of her costume at first was lavender and little by little it gets whiter and white; we had six or seven of the same costume and bleached and bleached them, and also made them more raggedy every time you see her, until there is the beautiful red color when she becomes ill and has to be taken to hospital.

How did the costumes for poor people’s clothes develop?

[In our research] we found out that if you weren’t rich you wore secondhand clothes. If you were a poor person, you had to then buy clothes that were necessarily produced 20-30 years ago. So for the later beggars’ costumes we used rich people’s clothes from earlier in the film. We had an amazing team breaking down all the costumes; they sanded them down with sandpaper, brushed them with hard brushes, blow-torched them, painted them, put grease or oil on them to pretend that they had never been washed.


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