Reading Paul Thomas Anderson’s script for Phantom Thread for the first time, Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges was reminded of the filmmaker’s seminal Boogie Nights, seeing another world of rich possibilities in front of him.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a cutting couturier in ’50s London, Phantom Thread would seem to represent a career high for Bridges—a film based entirely around the world of high-society fashion. Working closely with the film’s ever-dedicated lead in defining the style of the “House of Woodcock,” Bridges settled on rich fabrics, royal colors and a heavy use of lace, marveling as Day-Lewis threw himself into the nitty-gritty of dressmaking.
In typically bold PTA fashion, Phantom Thread saw real-world seamstresses stepping onto the screen, and Bridges buying rare 17th century fabrics, only to cut into and repurpose them.
Speaking with Deadline, Bridges discusses memorable moments from the dark comedy’s production, giving his take on the film’s enigmatic title and the idea of stitching secrets into clothing.
What were your first impressions when you read the script for Phantom Thread?
It’s really interesting: You never know what Paul’s going to bring to you. I probably felt the same way about getting this script as I did when I got Boogie Nights from Paul. Like, “Wow, I can’t wait to do this,” just because the possibilities were so rich. We were going to work again with Daniel, who we’d done There Will Be Blood with.
Each time Paul brings me a script, it’s like, what fresh challenge are we going to work on? Whether it’s Pynchon or Woodcock, it’s always something to look forward to. Whether it’s Inherent Vice or There Will Be Blood, he trusts me to glean out the research, and tell that story visually through the clothes.
On this film, that included: “This is how we take a fisherman’s daughter, and here are some of the ideas for women.” We called them the gowns of certain beats of the movie. There were important things, like the mother’s wedding dress. There was certainly Henrietta Harding, there were some key Alma things; there was, what does Barbara Rose wear?
There was always research, and then we were constantly working out who Reynolds was in that world. We did a lot research, peripherally, of: Who was the designer in London at that time? Whether it ‘s Hardy Amies, or John Cavanagh, or Digby Morton—not names that everybody knows. Norman Hartnell, I think. Hartnell and Amies are probably the best known today from then because they did a lot of designs for royalty. So, looking at his contemporaries and what they were doing then, it kind of had us land some place with Reynolds.
What was it like collaborating with Day-Lewis on this film? Reportedly, he studied the craft of shoemaking and even designed a dress.
He worked really hard, a year or more before we shot, just learning about creating a garment. I think he has the aptitude because of working with shoes—the idea of pieces and shapes going together, and learning about grain. I think he made a garment for his wife—copied a Balenciaga or something.
He came to us having a lot of skills like that, to portray Reynolds more convincingly. Having sort of come from that world, we had his suits made at Anderson & Sheppard on Savile Row, and we had his shoes made at Cleverley’s. These were things that Daniel felt was right for the character—like, “That’s where Reynolds would have had his clothes made.”
It was a wonderful process for me, too, to be in that bespoke world of London and be in on those fittings. Of course, we asked them to do a little more period shape, at least in the trousers, than they usually do, but there is an Anderson Sheppard style that is pretty classic that hasn’t changed that much since the ‘50s. It’s amazing, the hand-workmanship that went into it, and I think that attention to detail is the kind of thing that helps Daniel immensely.
Between his knowledge of that world and his own backstory, and then actually putting on that world for his own wardrobe, I think that’s what it was like. He paid attention to every detail and was meticulous, as he always is with his roles. It was really exciting to work with that guy on his character’s clothes, and I love working with actors that way.
Can you explain the visual arc you constructed for Alma, as she enters Woodcock’s elegantly designed world?
It’s a little more simple with her. You go from fisherman’s daughter to couture designer’s muse, so what is that? Paul and I found some dresses that were very simple and could have, in fact, been homemade.
The idea was that at the beginning, the dress she wears is homemade, and is really trying to impress him. We had a timeline where it was right after Christmas, so I thought, “Oh, let’s use her Christmas dress. There was a comment that her brother makes, like: “Bit bright, isn’t it?” And she’s like, “I meant it to be.” So, you know right away that she’s no shrinking violet, and she’s actively pursuing this.
Once she gets into that world that she wants to be part of—the world of seamstresses and staff, and certainly the sister—and is finding her place, part of that is dressing like you belong there.
Then, of course, he takes over, as far as what she would become. She’s then able to make her own dresses, and continues to create things on her own. You just try to illustrate each of those beats the best you can to, to try to say, “fisherman’s daughter, trying to fit in.” You know, “muse of the couturier, stepping out on her own.”
I’m always looking for time and place, so that’s why the town clothes were different from the country clothes. You try to be specific.
Was the idea of stitching secret items into clothing something that resonated with you? Is that something you’ve ever done?
I have not ever done that, no. I think that idea carries a little more belief in external powers or energies than I belief in, and I actually would go against that. I probably wouldn’t saddle a garment with that. I want the garment to be a little freer than to have things sewn into it—it’s not my bag at all. I think a garment needs to be free to be what it’s going to be and not have some kind of energy put onto it.
Is “phantom thread” a familiar term in diction pertaining to fashion?
I had no idea where that was from, and then I did a Q&A last night with Vicki [Krieps]. I think there was an idea that Paul found in his research, and I could be wrong, but this made sense to me—I think in the 19th century, so much of the energy of the seamstresses was put into a garment, and even when they weren’t sewing it, their energy was there. That is along the lines of sewing something into the garment.
Paul does an enormous amount of research, and I think in one of his readings, he discovered that there was some kind of belief that the seamstress’s energy carries on. Because it was all handwork, so human spirits—human energy—was so intertwined with the garment’s creation. That adds great resonance to the whole story.
Within the film, there are real seamstresses playing seamstresses, which is interesting.
Yeah, it was really fun—and even our main cutter, Cecile [Van Dijk], who whipped up my designs in a couture fashion, was brought in. She’s on camera. She’s in the wedding dress scene. We had great technical advisors, too—we met them at the Victoria and Albert [Museum] where they were docents, when we went to research with Daniel and Paul, looking at gowns and things.
Paul, who’s always curious who he’s hanging out with, started talking to them, and they started to tell him about working at Hardy Amies. Very shortly after that, Paul was like, “You’re going to be in my movie” kind of thing. Six months later, there they were for their fittings.
What was the thinking when it came to color? We see a lot of pink and magenta in the film.
Those are choices that, in consulting with Reynolds, I think he leaned towards that. Daniel liked the lavender bow tie that we had on him, and then of course, his Pope socks. They’re actually Bishop socks from Gammarelli in Rome, which was sort of an idiosyncrasy of Reynolds. I think he leans towards those kind of royal colors. Purple’s always been pretty much royalty colors. Then, these berry colors and plums.
It was things that we felt were trademarks of the House of Woodcock—rich fabrics, rich colors, and heavy use of lace. We met with Reynolds, and Paul and I and my cutter, and worked out sort of, what is the House of Woodcock? Then, decisions came from that discussion.
What choices were made when it came to fabrics? I understand you sought out rare fabrics for the film.
We did, actually, trying to find natural, luxurious fabrics—mostly silks or fine woolens, which England is known for, trying to keep it to be what would have been available to Reynolds at the time.
A story point was this fragile lace that Reynolds had rescued during the war. For that piece, we knew it had to be kind of special. It couldn’t be something we could just go out and buy, and one my assistants had done research with some dealers and found a 3-meter piece of 17th century lace that we could buy. We bought it, and it was in very good shape because it was made of linen—you can find Egyptian linen from the tombs that’s still intact. It’s an incredibly strong fabric.
It was Flemish lace, and we worked it out on how it would be made into a garment. Everyone’s holding their breath while we’re making the first cut on the 17th century lace. But it turned out to be an amazing costume, amazing gown. It has that energy to it that was something for Reynolds to feed off of, as he showed it to Alma in the scene. We shot the scene before the gown was made, and then we made the gown, and there it is in the fashion shoot that we did within the film. It has that resonance, and we knew we had to do it in that order so that we could have the whole piece and then make it into a garment.