Deadline contributor Elizabeth Snead files this Emmy report:
Iconic costume designer Ann Roth has received three Academy Award nominations for her work (Places In The Heart, The Hours, and The
Talented Mr. Ripley) and took home the Oscar for her clothes in The English Patient. Now she is Emmy-nominated for the third time (past nods include Roanoak, Angels In America) for her work on HBO’s Mildred Pierce. Director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of James M. Cain’s classic novel had to distinguish itself through story and look from Michael Curtiz’s 1945 original adaptation starring Joan Crawford. Roth says that Haynes didn’t want to see a single shoulder pad in Cain’s tale of a hard-working but long-suffering woman abused by cheating, indolent men (James LeGros, Brian F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce) and ridiculed by her beautiful yet irretrievably indulged daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood). “The words ‘shoulder pads’ sent him into a hysterical tizzy. And yet [Elsa] Schiaparelli brought out a shoulder pad in 1936 and if the pads were in fashion in New York, they were also in Hollywood. But Todd didn’t want a shoulder pad, even when we got to 1939. I about wanted to kill him. I seldom buckle in but I did to this guy.” So no shoulder pads in any of Kate’s 66 costumes, from housedresses and aprons to afternoon dresses, business suits, and the occasional fancy gown as her career grows from kitchen pie-baking into a chain of successful restaurant.
Roth drew from her own mother and mother’s friends to represent how women lived and dressed in those days. “In the morning, women did whatever they did in the house. But in the afternoon my mother went to the library guild, or the hospital, or to some minor social activity, or to drive someone somewhere. And the women always changed from a house dress into an afternoon dress.” For evenings, she imagined Roosevelt’s voice on the radios and people who went out to supper always properly dressed. “Back then there was something proper about the aspiring middle class. Men wore suits and straw hats and women wore hats, girdles, and stockings. No one would go to all that trouble today.”
Roth says she longed for a scene with a touch of Hollywood glamour. “I wanted a restaurant scene with some bit part actresses or chorus girls having sandwiches and Cokes. I didn’t get it. But I did get the Pasadena thing. When I did Julie And Julia, I came upon some home movies of Childs’ family who lived in Pasadena. By social economic standards back then, they were well off, just not Bill Gates. So I got that at the country club one day and I really liked doing it.”
Everything Roth found and bought for Pierce was vintage. Just don’t ask her where she found the garments. “I don’t talk about that. Sorry. I think backstage life should not be shared. What magic there is backstage should remain so. I think people should expect costume work to be good and correct and then just get over it. You know, when this or that inverted trouser came into fashion, that’s not a detail for an audience to know. They should just relax and say, ‘That’s the way it was.” There was only one exception to her vintage rule. “We found seamed stockings but could not find rayon stockings.” Some of the frocks in Pierce were so frail and delicate that when an actress got up, bits of the dress would stay on the chair. “I used to just pray that the clothes would last until the end of the scene,” Roth recalls. But she also is one of those costumers who knows that a garment’s imperfections can speak volumes about the character: a torn seam, a crease, a stain, the way a sleeve is rolled, or the sheen on a dress hem from a sizzling iron picked up just in the nick of time. And Roth’s eagle-eye attention to detail was not just for the main actors. She also had crowd scenes with 2000 extras, which she says translates to “1,000 vintage girdles.” Now that’s reality.