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The Contender: Pierre-Yves Gayraud on dressing Glenn Close as a man

It took Glenn Close nearly 30 years to bring her beloved theatrical character Albert Nobbs to film, so when costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (“Indochine,” “The Bourne Identity”) arrived for work, Nobbs was by then almost a palpable entity for the actress. Close, a five-time Oscar nominee who also co-wrote and co-produced the story, wanted the quiet butler character to come to life in an elegant and practical manner; not simple, given that Nobbs is, underneath, a woman trying to stave off poverty by working as a servant in 19th century Ireland.

“We all know Glenn Close is a beautiful actress who looks wonderful in dresses,” says Gayraud from Berlin, where he is working on “Cloud Atlas,” starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. “The trick was to make this beautiful actress look good as a man in the late 1800s in Ireland. If that wasn’t believable, where would we be? Honestly, I think we did it very well.”

Since this was such a passionate project for Glenn Close, did she come to you with a well-formulated concept of what she wanted Albert Nobbs to look like?

Actually, I arrived very late on board for this film, so when Glenn called to welcome me we had a very nice and friendly conversation, and I told her, “I think you must have a lot of thoughts and background to give me for Albert’s character because you’ve dreamed of him for so long.” She said, “Pierre, I give you the keys.” The only thought in her mind at that time was the actual shoot details. After that I sent her some research, and we met together in London for first fittings and to welcome the silhouette of Albert Nobbs.

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Was there something hidden inside the character that was a key to unraveling how Close would be dressed?

The important thing for Nobbs was that he was not somebody who had the money to go to a tailor, so we had to create a secondhand look, one that made sense for someone in his means — and besides, as a woman she couldn’t go to a tailor for her clothes! So we mixed new and also secondhand things; I found an antique pocket watch, for example, and the hat was an antique I found in Paris. We had lots of hats, gloves, shoes, waistcoats, jackets, to give different elements of the silhouette.

We had to be very careful too, because as a woman we had to make sure the inner corsets and undergarments still allowed for the proportions of a man. We started with the shoes, and after about the third pair, she said, “It’s OK.” After that, step by step, we made the construction of the character.

Irish period films always have a dark, muted, monochromatic palette and tone, both in costume color and the film’s general ambience. Is this what you found in your antique shopping, or is this more of a cinematic technique?

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Yes, yes … actually when you see authentic antique costumes from this time period and place, they could be very bright and colorful. But for us, we used this color mainly with some of the wealthier guests and the fancy dinner party scene. The staff was more in black and white, though we did put them in color in the costume ball scene. For the extras in that scene, we used authentic vintage fabrics I found in a Paris antique market and in my private collection, and which had never been used before in a film. But yes, it’s an overall look, the more dark and muted tones. Maybe it has something to do with who is happy and who is not? (laughs)

Was there a costume in the film that you personally liked the best?

We had a small crew, and we had a last-minute change of plans for the scene with Nobbs and Hubert (Janet McTeer, who plays another woman dressed as a man), where they dressed as women for the first time in decades and went outside. I used an 1850s fabric, and we had to make those costumes in three days. Glenn wanted something special and fresh, and so it was tight to get it done, but when I saw the scene in the movie of the two women running together on the beach, it looked so lovely. I was very happy, very happy.

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