‘Mildred Pierce’s’ Ann Roth on designing costumes for the Depression era

Special to the Los Angeles Times

As Mildred Pierce, the proud single mother in Depression-era Southern California in the new HBO miniseries of the same name, Kate Winslet scrambles around town trying to find a job — after kicking her cheating husband out — in a mud-brown floral-print dress.

Long-sleeved and body-skimming, it’s “the kind of ‘good’ dress women had a few of in their closet in those days,” said legendary costume designer Ann Roth, who designed hundreds of outfits for the epic HBO drama, an adaption of the 1941 novel by James M. Cain that premieres Sunday.

To add a well-worn feel to the thin frock, Roth and her team “patched it and added iron spots where it gets shiny,” she said. “Probably no one can see it but us.… But, yes, I think it helped Kate.”


The story is a dramatic tale of a woman enslaved by unhealthy relationships, most notably with her daughter Veda (played by Evan Rachel Wood). It starts in 1931 and ends in 1940, but Roth looked to late-1920s styles to outfit characters in the beginning of the series since “no one had any money to buy what was in the stores,” she said.

Such attention to detail is a hallmark in Roth’s large body of work, which includes iconic films such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Klute,” along with modern classics such as “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain.”

In “Mildred Pierce,” each item of clothing — from polka-dotted smocks and house robes to impeccable bias-cut skirts, slinky gowns and men’s boxy wool suiting — hangs with an authenticity that considers era, social strata and personality.

Pierce, for example, “didn’t have many clothes,” said Roth, who was born in 1931, the year the narrative begins (she will be 80 in October). “Many women had three house dresses, a navy blue or black dress for church, funerals or weddings, and probably one or two other good dresses — but that doesn’t mean they were brand-new. People did mending and people darned socks in those days.”

Costuming “is not fashion — we’re not doing a Vogue spread,” she added. “It was the way people dressed. If a lady lived in the Valley and hadn’t been anywhere, she didn’t see [high] fashion.”

Roth describes Pierce’s personal style as “cautious,” defined by meek dresses and separates “probably from Bullocks Wilshire” in the earlier years. But the designer went for full-on glamour when outfitting Pierce’s daughter, Veda, later in the series, as Wood’s character morphs into a famous coloratura soprano.

Drop-dead gorgeous designs (worn to perfection by Wood) include a snaking, floor-length fitted rust-colored dress with short flutter sleeves, teamed with a fox stole and white opera-length gloves; and a shimmering black sleeveless gown paired with a glitter-covered black hat and patent leather-shiny red lips.

But the pièce de résistance of “Mildred Pierce’s” costume haul is a saccharine-sweet gold gown Veda wears onstage in the final episode.

With its girlish gold parasol, appliqué roses, drooping, oversize sleeves, slight bustle and glittering gold overlay, it’s part Bo Peep, part silver-screen queen.

A photo Roth unearthed of 1930s soprano and actress Jeanette MacDonald inspired the piece. “She was in her bonnet, bows and ruffles, and it was a wonderful, innocent time,” said the outspoken designer. “It was made so that if there was a light behind it, it would shine through the dress. I was all excited about that happening, but I don’t think it happened. Oh, well.”

Roth and her staff designed and made most of the series’ costumes. “I found a jacket here and a dress there, and I’d think, ‘This is lovely, but the blouse is rotten,’ so I’d make a new blouse. Many times I’d find a skirt and the length would be wrong. Women are bigger today, and we would feebly attempt to find fabric and attach it.”

The costume designer, who won an Academy Award for 1996’s “The English Patient” and has more than 100 films and movies under her belt, characterized “Mildred Pierce” as “really fun, but really hard work. This was a hard-work job.”

She added, “It’s easy to evoke the 1930s — there’s plenty of source material out there…. But it’s not as though you walk into a vintage store. There’s no rack to pull things off of. But if you ever find one, let me know.”