Costume design, like editing and sound, is one of the many “invisible arts” of moviemaking: if it’s done well, then you don’t notice it. It is, though, perhaps a little more front and center than the others, hiding its many clever tricks in plain sight. Indeed, often when you meet a character, it’s their wardrobe that begins telling the viewer their tale, before they’ve even spoken.
Three of the best costume designers of this year’s rich choice of Oscar-worthy movies — Cappi Ireland for Lion, Jackie’s Madeline Fontaine and La La Land’s Mary Zophres — all have different takes on their mysterious craft, and how they accomplished their most recent, remarkable works.
For Ireland, whose credits include Kill Bill, Animal Kingdom and The Rover, the invisibility of her work is part and parcel of the trade: “When the other school moms ask me what I do their reaction is usually, ‘Oh… OK,’ like they’ve never really considered that it’s something people do,” she admits, revealing it’s something costume designers take as more of a compliment than an insult.
“Everything worn in a movie is the result of much careful thinking, research and design,” she continues. “I work closely with the production designer and camera department, and of course the director has the final say; we’re all trying to realize their vision.”
For Lion, based on a true story and—although only set a decade or so ago—a period piece, details are crucial. For instance, for the scenes shot and set in India, a careful eye had to be kept on the coloring: “You look at Indian men from that time and, even compared to now, it’s changed so much; there’s very little color. The women have always worn colorful clothes but for the men it’s mostly white shirts,” she explains.
For Mary Zophres, whose credits include Interstellar and every Coen brothers movie from Fargo onwards, the research that went into La La Land is just part of the fun. “I’ve a huge collection of magazines; Life, Vogue and others from the ’30s onward. [Writer/director] Damien Chazelle had us watch films that were key; Jacques Demy films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. The use of color in those films is extraordinary,” she explains. “It all came together for a classic look, not specific to any era.”
While the timeless style is important for the heightened reality of La La Land, there’s also a practical side to consider for musicals, where there’s plenty of dancing. There’s no handbook for designing musicals, so Zophres looked carefully at the classics: “You notice things in movies like old Gene Kelly musicals; when they go into dance routines, you can see the lining in the clothes can change to something lighter, less heavy,” she reveals.
Madeline Fontaine’s (Amélie, Yves Saint Laurent) costuming for Jackie saw her recreating some iconic outfits of the famous First Lady, in particular the pink Chanel suit that’s instantly associated with her. The task proved a mix of style, reality and technical considerations typical of the job.
“We made it as a copy of the one everybody knows for sure,” she explains. “We had to first settle with [director] Pablo Larrain and Stephane Fontaine, the DP, the right color according to the choices of the different cameras for the shooting and the continuity of the footage. Then we made filmed tests of different colours to get the pink. And then we made five of it. [It was] impressive to see Natalie [Portman] in it for the first time on set.”
There was also realism to consider, something that can be at odds with creating a cinematic world. “The challenge was, as ever, to make it true. So many scenes are matching with reality and memories, it doesn’t give too much space for ‘going off,’” explains Fontaine. “As usual we did a mix of bought and transformed and made.”
With each new project comes new challenges, and the rewards and satisfaction of meeting them. There’s really no such thing as a typical movie experience for any of the designers, they say, and they all have a strong desire to try out new things. Zophres explains: “I’d done two westerns next to each other [True Grit, Cowboys & Aliens] and I knew that row [in the costume warehouse] intimately, so I didn’t want to do another.”
La La Land certainly fits the bill of being different, and Zophres became quickly enamored of the special qualities that only comes with working on a musical. “There’s something magical about having music on the set; it changes the whole mood. Having musicians like John Legend performing on set, up close, there’s nothing like it. Even on O Brother, Where Art Thou? where we had pre-recorded music playing all the time, it casts a spell. If I had my way I’d just do musicals from now on.”
Wardrobe is not only hired early, but it’s one of the departments that needs to be on set everyday, which more often than not means location work. This is very much part of the fun for Cappi Ireland, who had already travelled extensively. Indeed it was in her post-college Euro-tripping in London where she saw the film that inspired her to take up her job. “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; those costumes just leapt off the screen,” she remembers. “I don’t know if it was because I was feeling particularly homesick at the time, but seeing the Australian locations with those amazing costumes in them definitely started something.”
For Lion, the location work in India meant working alongside some of Bollywood’s costumiers on some impressive crowd scenes. “The scene at the train station, with hundreds of extras and the modern world erased, was really unusual,” she notes.
With Jackie, the French and U.S. locations were essential for gathering the clothes—some period, high fashion items from the likes of Dior and Chanel. “Some of the costumes were coming from Paris for the family and the personalities, rent or bought from vintage places. All the rest have been rented in Los Angeles—but all were made for Natalie,” explains Fontaine. Even the new fabrics used had to be of particular standard: “They are all coming from houses of ‘couture’. The quality of the fabric makes the difference,” she adds.
Mary Zophres, on the other hand, prefers things a little closer to her LA home. “Shooting for three weekends in LA at that off-ramp doing a musical number, we shut it down and had that beautiful city stretched out behind, it was special. You know you’re making a movie,” she remembers. It’s not just getting home every night that’s the attraction. “I prefer to shoot just in Hollywood, it’s done less and less these days but it’s where movies should be made, have always been made,” she states, touching on how the industry is changing.
Even with resumes covering a dazzling variety of styles and eras, there’s still dream projects to be had for these major talents. Unsurprisingly, their dreams involve movies where their work is perhaps drawing a little more attention to itself. “I’d love to do a science fiction movie, something really futuristic,” reveals Zophres. “Whenever I watch a science fiction movie I keep thinking of how my take would be a little different. I mean, I did Interstellar, but I’d love to do something a little more out there.”
For Ireland it’s a similar ambition: “I’d love to do a fantasy movie, something so imaginative, pure fantasy, creating a magical world and all the work it entails in making everything. For my kids more than anything, I’d love to take them into something so creative, full of imagination.” They’ve made dreams come true for enough directors, maybe it’s time for Hollywood to return the favor.