On Bohemian Rhapsody, depicting the rise of Freddie Mercury from outsider status to that of an icon, costume designer Julian Day went after the essence of a figure that was larger than life, seeking to please both legions of diehard Queen fans and his lead actor, Rami Malek. For various reasons, Mercury was a substantially difficult character to take on. As singular of a stage presence as he was, with a uniquely potent global fan base, the musician was as influential in the clothes he wore, as he was in the songs he wrote. “I think he was quite revolutionary,” Day says, “in terms of pushing the boundary of what people hadn’t seen before.”
Going into the project with director Bryan Singer, Day knew he was making a drama, not a documentary, and approached his work as such. Even so, it was of absolute importance to Malek, stepping into a risky role, that the costume designer get Mercury right. “I think that Rami was a very different type of actor. He’s very fastidious. Some actors are very particular about what they wear, but him more so than anyone else I’ve worked with, really,” the designer says. “I think in the back of his mind, he was probably aware that people would try to criticize what he was doing, and if he didn’t get Freddie right, the whole film wouldn’t work.”
For Malek, “doing the right thing” came down to being very methodical, when it came to his movement, his voice and his clothing. “It was a very dynamic performance, so the clothes had to feel right for him. He was very, very particular about how he looked,” Day says. “We did countless fittings to make sure everything was correct.”
Interestingly, after taking on Mercury, Day was on to another meticulous music-based project, with Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman. Starring Taron Egerton, the film will take a deep dive into the story of Elton John. As is well known at this point, when Singer was fired from Bohemian Rhapsody due to repeated absence on set and conflicts with his star, Fletcher was the helmer who stepped into rough waters, and brought the film to completion. In saving the day, Fletcher earned respect from various parties, but Day had signed on to Rocketman based on prior experiences with the actor-director, in which his character and his particular set of skills were on full display. “He’s very dynamic; he’s very, very good at what he does. He’s so good with actors, and he gets really good performances out of people,” the costume designer shares. “The thing about Dexter is he likes to challenge people. In terms of the work, he likes to make people think beyond what you wouldthink, and I think that’s really good.”
What were the first steps you took in preparing for Bohemian Rhapsody?
I looked at the script and started to do research. At first, it was just via the internet. As I got into prep, I got invited down to where Queen had their archives, and there was lots photographic reference and audiovisual stuff. Then, [Queen guitarist] Brian May invited me to his house, where he’s got lots of his old stage wear and clothing. That was really how I got into it.
What was your experience of Queen’s music prior to taking the film on?
I wouldn’t say I was a Queen fan to begin with. I knew their music, and I think the thing about Queen is that they transcended music, in a way. Their songs are so well known that some of them are just sort of out there on their own. When you hear a David Bowie song, you instantly think of David Bowie, but there’s something about Queen that I think is very different. As I got into it, I listened to more of their early music, which I thought was really good. I like to think they were quite a unique band—they’re not necessarily just a standard rock band. There’s more to it than that, really.
In your early conversations with Bryan Singer, what was the focus? Was it just about how faithfully recreating the look of the band, as it evolved over time?
I’d worked out that there are certain times we see the band where we’d have to reproduce authentically what they wore, and there are other times when we would have no idea what they were wearing because there’s no pictorial reference. So, it was the idea of, how are we going to do this? For some of it, I looked at reference of various kinds, and worked out roughly what they were going to wear from what I’d seen. But it was something of both, really. Faithfully recreating stuff, and making it up as we went along, as well. I think it’s really important that we did reproduce certain gigs faithfully, for the fans. Everybody knows that at certain gigs, they wore certain things.
Can you give a sense of where faithful recreation was important, and where you were able to take certain liberties?
Live Aid is a great example of where we had to be completely faithful to what they wore, and that’s something that I researched quite heavily. It seems like the simplest of outfits—the jeans, the tank—but it was one of the most difficult things to recreate because it appears in the film for about half an hour, on and off, which is almost a quarter of the film. So, it had to look exactly right. I contacted Adidas and they recreated the boxing boots that Freddie and Brian May wore. Then, I contacted one of the makers that was involved in making the belt and the armband, originally. Then, I contacted Wrangler and got the exact jeans that Freddie wore.
I think the gig in Rio, where [Freddie’s] got the leather trousers on, was another recreation. There’s a scene when they first go on tour in Japan where they wore Zandra Rhodes tops, both Freddie and Brian, and that was something I had recreated at Zandra Rhodes. I think those are the times we were very faithful.
For the recording studios, there were pictures of them at a recording studio, so I followed the rough idea, doing that. The original recording studio was in Wales, in the middle of the countryside, so these four lads turn up from London looking very rock and roll, and I wanted to make them feel very out of place in those circumstances.
You’ve noted in interviews that the ‘70s looks you were going after in much of the film were a throwback in some ways to ‘30s fashion. What was the factor that linked these two eras?
It was a silhouette that followed through in the ‘70s. Men’s trousers were slightly higher waisted, and were swallowing the leg, and women’s dresses were also very similar. Mary [Austin] worked at Biba, and all of Biba’s prints were based on ‘30s designs—the little cloche hats and big wide-brimmed fedoras, for men as well. When you look at films like The Sting or The Great Gatsby, the Robert Redford one, even though they’re set in the ‘30s, they use a lot of ‘70s shapes. It’s quite interesting, looking at ‘70s films that are about the ‘30s. There’s a real symmetry, and the big, wide lapels on men’s suits in the ‘70s was very reminiscent of the ‘30s. The use of fabrics, as well—the velvets and silks, and geometric patterns. Obviously, fashion is cyclical anyway. I think every era sort of looks at another era, less so now than it used to.
How did you contemplate a visual arc for Freddie Mercury, who took on so many different looks over the time period you were depicting?
I think he starts the film quite flamboyant. Not as flamboyant as he becomes, but I wanted to get across the idea that the first thing he puts on is a top that his mother wears. It’s almost like he’s stolen his mum’s clothing, something that had a hippie, Indian feel to it. He was born in East Africa and went to school in India, so that was also a little nod. When he meets Mary, he becomes more flamboyant, and he actually really owned a store in Kensington Market, which sold clothing. He had a flamboyance and a quite androgynous look. I wanted to create that flamboyance, and develop that throughout the film.
I don’t think he was a slave to fashion. I think he would wear clothes that he liked. I don’t know for certain, but you look at what he wears in photographs and there’s some quite odd choices. They’re not standard, and they’re not as theatrical, in some ways, as David Bowie. I’m doing a film about Elton John at the moment, and both Bowie and Elton John are very theatrical. Freddie did wear some quite crazy things, but stuff that we didn’t put in the film because we didn’t need to, or they were at certain gigs we didn’t cover. There was something quite space age about some of this stuff, as well.
We then hit a point in the film where his style changes. When he went to New York and gay clubs, there was that whole thing going on in New York—a quite heavy-leather scene and quite macho, with the mustache, very much like Robert Mapplethorpe, when you look at his photographs. He started to develop that look on his own, with the leather trousers and the caps and all of that, and I think he introduced that look to a mainstream public that probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.
In terms of your recreations of Freddie’s stage looks, was there one that was particularly satisfying to you?
I think the Zandra Rhodes—there was a lot that went into that. The right weight of satin, the color. It was white, and white is notoriously difficult to light. The satin we used was slightly lighter than what the original one was, only because it just had better movement that way.
You crafted a substantial number of bespoke pieces for Malek. Was that an exciting part of the process?
It was fantastic, actually. You can really tell a story. We tried some things, we made some, we’d scour vintage shops looking for pieces. One of the most exciting things was actually my first fitting that I did with Rami, where I fitted these flared trousers on him. He’s quite petite, and these trousers fitted so, so well. They literally could have been made for him. I used that as the base pattern for pretty much all the flared trousers I made in the whole film, for everybody. We called it “the Freddie flare.”
What aspect of this film did you find most challenging, on a creative level?
I approached it as an ensemble piece. Normally, when I do my show and tell to people, you show a single character at a time. But [on Bohemian], I wanted to show the four of them as a band. A lot of people have said the scenes where they’re all together in the studio really work because it was conceived with the four of them together at all times. I know it seems quite obvious, but it was just making sure that whenever I looked at a picture of any of their clothes, they were all in the same scene together.
One of the biggest challenges was the crowd scenes, because there were so many people in these scenes. The budget was fair, but it wasn’t huge, so to get all those clothes within the budget, I went to a place in Barnsley, in the north of England, where they sell clothes by the kilo. I went up there with about 10 people and we stayed for three or four days, just sorting through all these clothes to get ‘80s clothes for Live Aid. We had 4, 5, 600 people in the Live Aid gig, so there were a lot of people to dress.