This year as every year, when the Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design are announced, the ballot will invariably be filled with hoop skirts and tailcoats and perhaps a touch of Far East or outer space-style exotica. It's only natural to admire the costumes in a period movie, redolent as they are of painstaking research and construction. Rich, complex clothing from other eras can also stand as a corrective to our own, 21st-century sartorial mediocrity.
But this emphasis ignores the majority of work done by costume designers in films, most of which are set in the here and now. Designers will tell you there is nothing simple about dressing contemporary actors playing contemporary characters. "I think contemporary is harder," says Three Kings designer Kym Barrett, sounding a common refrain. "When you do period movies, you have a lot of reference materials, you can study the history, you know there was a war and they had a shortage of this or that, you know what fabrics people could afford, and that certain colors had certain meanings in certain periods. There are all these givens to research. And then you have the luxury of being able to interpret it in your own style, within the color scheme, or whatever else, of the movie.
"But when you do contemporary," she continues, "every single person has an opinion, and believes that their vision of the 1970s or last year is the vision." Betsy Heimann, whose stylish costume design credits include Pulp Fiction, Out of Sight, and Anywhere But Here, concurs: "Everybody--the director, the actors, their wives, my boyfriend--feels that their opinion is just as worthwhile as mine. There's no look to point to and say, 'It's got to be this.'" Says Barrett, "In a period movie, everybody pretty much accepts that you got it right."
Even the preparation for a contemporary film can be comparatively challenging. "I do just as much research for a modern movie," says Heimann. "I think that all of us have preconceived notions of how things look, and that's not always the truth. When I did Jerry Maguire, I spent at least a month researching the world of sports. I watched football, and I don't like football. I was watching a New Year's game, and somebody got injured, and I said, 'Everybody back away--I want to see who runs out onto the field and what they're wearing.' I watched a lot of sports interview shows, to find out what the interviewer wears, and what the sports guy wears when he goes on TV. Just as you would with a period film, you try to project authenticity."
"Designing is designing is designing," states Jeffrey Kurland, a longtime member of Woody Allen's creative team whose most recent project is Erin Brockovich, a Steven Soderbergh movie starring Julia Roberts that Universal will release in March. "The difference in the process is all in the nature of the script and the film. You read the script, you get a feeling for what the character does, what their social strata is, where they come from and where they're going. And then you apply it to whatever period you happen to be doing: if it's 1930, that's one thing; if it's 2000, it's something else."
Erin Brockovich, which is based on the true story of a small-town California law clerk who got involved in a huge class-action environmental lawsuit, is actually set in the late 1980s to mid-90s. This is only subtly represented in the costume design, and hardly classifies the film as period. According to Ann Roth, "In the movie world, pre-JFK's death is a period picture. It used to be the 30s--when I did Day of the Locust in the 1970s, that was a period picture. But after that, no." These distinctions can be important: "Producers are scared of the word period," says Roth, who followed The Talented Mr. Ripley's 1950s designs with the contemporary, semi-fanciful look of the Mike Nichols comedy What Planet Are You From? But the classification can also depend on the milieu of the story. Heimann's latest project, for example, is an as-yet untitled Cameron Crowe movie set in the early 70s rock world. "I would consider that a period picture, because you can't find those clothes in any kind of multiples," she says. "You have to make them."
On something like Erin Brockovich, there's more of a choice. Though Roberts, a glamorous movie star, plays the role, Brockovich in both real and reel versions is the archetypal ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. That doesn't mean that the character is drab, however. "She's a very provocative dresser," says Kurland. "She's a very attractive woman with a nice figure, and she dresses the part." The designer says the film is an interesting case for a contemporary film because "Erin Brockovich is an actual person, so you have something real to research. I spoke to her, and she pulled out pictures from that time to show me. The designs are about the character, who is unique. I always lean toward being true to the character. For instance, Bullets Over Broadway was set in 1928, and I was definitely true to the period. But I was more true to the characters."
Kurland estimates that 75% of Roberts' costumes were made, "because of the special way they had to fit, and the special needs of the character that I had to build into the clothing." The actress, he adds, is in almost every frame of Erin Brockovich, and has 52 changes in all; it was important to achieve a unity in her look. "Whatever isn't made is so worked on, so altered...you never go out and just buy something," says the designer. "Plus the fact that when you're doing a movie like this, you've got triples and quadruples of certain things that you have to make." The costumes were constructed at the Bill Hargate Studio in Los Angeles, where the renowned Mary Ellen Field is cutter-draper. "Since I moved to LA in 1996, she's done all my ladies' clothes for me. When I'm doing a movie, I usually rent a space there. In New York, I had my own studio, with my own people, and Barbara Matera made a lot of my clothes."
Heimann says the breakdown between shopping for costumes and designing and building them depends on many factors. "Some of my movies are purely shopped, but most are a mixture," she says. "All of Susan Sarandon's costumes for Anywhere But Here were made. On Jerry Maguire, all Tom Cruise's suits were made, and so was Renee Zellweger's little black date dress that every girl in America called to ask where to buy. On Out of Sight, we made a lot of Jennifer Lopez's clothes; the knitwear I bought, but the leather coat was my design. Even George Clooney's plain-front vintage pants, which I figured the character got at a thrift store--you can't go through a whole movie with one pair of retro pants, so I made him seven multiples. My secret is, you can never tell what I made and what I bought."
Sometimes the choice depends on circumstances. "Often in contemporary films, you're hired or the actor is hired five minutes before the movie starts, so it becomes creative shopping," says Analyze This and Meet Joe Black designer Aude Bronson-Howard, who runs her own costume shop in New York. "Or you may have a vision, then another actor is hired, and you have to turn on a dime." Mona May, whose colorful costumes for Clueless set a trend and established her as the premier designer for youth-market movies, says, "At this point, the finances are such that you don't really have the money to make everything, unless you are on a period film." Her current film, Amy Heckerling's New York-set Loser, is mostly being shot in Toronto for cost-saving reasons, and although May prepped it in the Big Apple, time was limited. May figures that perhaps 30% of the film's costumes are constructed, though the percentage is higher for the principal characters.
Heimann's view is that buying costumes is not always cheaper. "I have been able to accomplish making my own things very economically because I have a workroom," she says. "When I do a movie, I have my own tailor, and my own cutter-fitter, and we just set up shop.If the people are on payroll, it doesn't cost you anything but the fabric. On the Cameron Crowe movie, we made everything from the T-shirts up; I wasn't in a department store or a boutique for over a year." To her, that's a good thing, though other designers may feel differently.
In fact, a designer's background seems, to some degree, to influence their slant on their work. Heimann studied fashion illustration and at one juncture had a business designing one-of-a-kind clothing, but her roots are also in UCLA's theatre design program. Kurland majored in theatre at Northwestern, and began his career behind the scenes on various New York stages, and Barrett was already an in-demand Australian theatre designer when she got her first movie job, on Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet. And Roth, of course, has designed for theatre since before the 1960s, when she established her long-running collaborations with contemporary chroniclers like Nichols and Neil Simon.
But other costume designers are more based in the fashion world. May, who is from Germany, studied fashion design in Europe and at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles. Bronson-Howard worked in Yves St. Laurent menswear and commercial styling, before assisting on movies like 9 1/2 Weeks. That film was designed by Bobbie Read, a British transplant to Hollywood who worked in the London garment business during the 60s, "designing midis, minis, and maxis." She got into commercials and then movies through her association with directors like Adrian Lyne and Tony Scott, and has gone on to design Top Gun, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Con Air, and Hanging Up, a Diane Keaton comedy released by Columbia Pictures in February.
Like everyone else interviewed, Read says that costume design for movies is far more rewarding than the clothing business, yet her sensibility is inflected by fashion. "I'm always in the shops, always out there keeping abreast of what the young ones are wearing," she says. "I look at magazines, I look at the music world, and I take all my ideas from what's out on the street, especially in Europe. I've loved making clothes since I was dressing my dolls as a five-year-old, and after I left school, I couldn't afford to buy a new outfit every time I went out, so I made it. I always wanted to be first with everything." Her research for a movie like Hanging Up consists of pulling photos from the latest magazines, and indulging her "shopaholic" tendencies. "With contemporary movies, you do tend to see what's out there, in the costume houses, vintage stores, and designer showrooms," she says. "You see what their next season's line is going to be."
May, whose super-stylin' credits also include Never Been Kissed and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, says her films often call for the services of a fashion predictor. "It takes about a year from starting a film until it comes out, and it's got to be fresh and interesting and something to emulate, instead of something kids have already seen over and over for the last few months," she says. "I usually work with the European trends, because they're about six months ahead of the US. From previews in Europe, I take colors that are coming out to the director, and we blend it into the palette. And I work with fabric predictions, because the mills make fabrics a year or two ahead. Of course, you can't just translate fashion directly into the movie, because you'll have a runway show, and people won't be able to identify with the characters." On Clueless, for example, the bright, trend-setting look was inspired by up-to-the-minute European styles, but adapted to a Beverly Hills climate and teenage-appropriate propriety: "They're not running around in high heels, and the clothes are not too revealing or slutty," says May.
Read's costumes for Hanging Up, which stars Keaton, Meg Ryan, and Lisa Kudrow as sisters dealing with elderly, alcoholic father Walter Matthau, were almost exclusively bought, though she too used "the wonderful Mary Ellen" at Hargate Studio for doubles and triples. The designer shops all over the Los Angeles area, taking advantage of companies like Paris Costume for vintage clothes, Western Costume or CRC largely for period, studio wardrobe departments at Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros., or Disney for all kinds of stock, and the studio service departments at stores like Neiman-Marcus, Saks, and Barneys. "You can pull things anywhere off the floor and bring it to them, and it's written up," says Read of this procedure, which arose after the decline of movie studio services in the 1970s. "They'll look for double and triples and quads if we need them, or the right sizes from other stores. Even the smaller vendors are now so familiar with the Hollywood setup that they'll allow you to take out their merchandise on a percentage basis, usually 20 or 30% if you purchase a certain amount."
"I use them if I have to buy shoes, underpinnings, all that stuff," says Kurland of the department store studio services. "And for my extras, who are always dressed, I use the costume houses and studios. You're trying to achieve a palette, but you can't build them all, so you pull from Universal or Warner Bros. Then with dyeing and aging, you get to a certain place." For subsidiary characters in Erin Brockovich, Kurland was trying to reflect the sandy, earth-toned palette of the desert setting, the better to let Roberts' garishly attired title character pop in her reds and lavenders. This kind of complete design is what May says she loves: "I dress all the extras, I buy all the accessories, the jewelry, the backpacks, shoes, and panty hose. On Never Been Kissed, I had two 45' trucks full of clothes. People don't resemble themselves when they get to the set."
More than the traditional Hollywood outlets, Kurland says, "I like to go to odd places to shop: thrift stores and resale shops, where you find the most interesting things. They're not all brand-new, but they're not old; you can build a character, and the clothes become real." There were many more of such "hole-in-the-wall" places available to him in New York, he adds. "The variety in LA is not as great. On the other hand, if it isn't there to purchase all the time, it makes you rely on your own resources, your own creativity."
Barrett, who says she always shops in New York, particularly likes to haunt the garment district and fabric stores, and takes advantage of the manufacturers whose "primary business is not making movie costumes. That's the best, because they don't have preconceived notions about what I'm going to want. You'll go, 'I love that in blue, but can you make it in this color?' and they'll say, sure." Though May's favorite seamstress is Zoya Bergam, who has her own shop in LA, she usually bypasses department stores in favor of upcoming New York designers' showrooms. "I like to purchase stuff that's not even in the stores yet," she says. "I can buy wholesale, and give people who aren't overpriced yet a great showcase. I feel there's already enough money going into Donna Karan or Calvin Klein."
On Loser, which depicts the romantic tribulations of several characters at New York University, May used such young New York design houses as Cubica and Dean Horn, pulling costumes that were appropriate for the movie, and for the individual characters. Dora (Mena Suvari), the female lead, is an outwardly tough girl torn between the nerdy title character (Jason Biggs) and one of her professors (Greg Kinnear), and her clothes, says May, have a quasi-80s feel: army boots, fishnet stockings, little skirts. Since Horn specializes in knitwear, the costume designer used his house to manufacture sweaters for this character.
Overall, the New York feel was important for Loser, which has a much more autumnal, "jewel-toned" palette than Clueless. May says it's not beside the point that both films were directed by Heckerling, who not only has "amazing taste" in developing a color scheme but also happens to be a woman. "Most directors are men, and they don't know about fashion," says the designer. But genre also plays a major role in the look of these movies. "I love doing comedies," says May, "because you can use the humor in the clothes, and make fun of fashion to a degree. In Clueless, the characters were fashion victims, and in Romy and Michele, when they go to their reunion in dresses that they've made, it's a funny and sweet and silly expression of who they are. Loser comes from a more reality-based place."
Just like period, genre can also affect whether costumes are built or bought, and where they come from. Action movies like Con Air or Three Kings require many multiples, and the Gulf War setting of the latter drama meant Barrett went directly to the same manufacturer who had made uniforms for the real deal. (Then came the work: dyeing four color versions of each costume to match the different film stocks used in the movie.) Though Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction marginally belong to the gangster genre, Heimann says director Quentin Tarantino's fresh approach meant she could basically create the costumes from her imagination. "My research for Pulp Fiction was Reservoir Dogs, and my research for Reservoir Dogs was, I had $10,000," she jokes. "It was basically me with my tape measure at the thrift store."
On a crazy comedy like Ace Ventura, Read could really engage in what Bronson-Howard called "creative shopping": "I just brought Jim Carrey into the Universal costume department and threw on a whole bunch of different ideas. I put him in silk pajama bottoms, a pair of motorcycle boots, and a designer shirt, and he did the rest." A more realistic film might lead a designer to shop where the character would. "If it's a K-Mart sort of movie, you're better off going to K-Mart," says Bronson-Howard. For a more or less reality-based comedy-drama like Hanging Up, featuring mature professional women, the traditional couture to be found at stores like Neiman-Marcus or even Macy's is certainly appropriate. Though there is an element of movie glamour to the actresses' appearance here, the Moschino and Thierry Mugler suits worn by Keaton's character, a fashion editor, and the more "comfortable" outfits--Donna Karan or DKNY tees and skirts, and a baggy Dolce & Gabbana camel coat--in which Read dresses Meg Ryan's party planner, are not totally out of reason.
Which brings us to a rather charged matter facing motion picture (or television) costume designers: how to cope with a world increasingly obsessed by name brands. Even setting aside the issue of fashion designer tie-ins that are an growing presence on TV shows like Dawson's Creek, the preoccupation with labels can be the bane of some costume designers' existences. Heimann says, "When the fashion magazines call me and ask, 'Who made that coat for Jennifer Lopez?,' I'll say, 'I did.' They say, 'What does that mean?' 'You know, like Calvin Klein made it or Ralph Lauren made it--I made it.' Then they're not interested, because that doesn't sell clothes."
"Fashion has nothing to do with costume design," says Kurland. "Fashion, you design clothing for people; costumes, you design characters. I mean, you follow the trends, the way you research any period. If you treat now as a period, which it is, you have to be familiar with what's out there. As a costume designer, I do find it interesting when I see Paris designs, and I can open a book of research from the 50s or 30s, and see where it came from. I don't know if there's been an original idea since St. Laurent did the Russian look. You do keep up with it. But then again, in what lifetime does everyone wear the latest, up-to-date fashions? I've dressed characters who are millionaires, but always at some point I look at them in a T-shirt. When I did [Woody Allen's] Alice, I stood out in front of Upper East Side schools, watching these women drop off their children. They would come out of their limousines with mink coats on over sweat pants, Nikes, and a sweatshirt. That's real. Which is why I don't understand it when people say, 'We're getting this fashion designer to do all the clothes.'"
Pressure to use a certain designer's clothes can come from a producer, from product placement people, or not least, from an actor. "The road to hell is paved with fashionable intentions," says Bronson-Howard of such input. Heimann says, "I think it's really sad. I've said it before, but the old days of Hollywood were much more glamorous, because the stars had more individuality to them. The younger stars are all very concerned about looking alike, they want to be sure they have a label that's acceptable. They want to be in Prada, or Gucci, and therefore they all look alike."
May, for one, demurs. "I don't mind it," she says of the influence of fashion. "It's a sign of the times. Most actors don't know what to wear, so it's a help to them. And I never feel pressure from anyone, maybe because there's already so much fashion in my movies. In Loser, we do have the main character's fashion-victim roommates go to a Tommy Hilfiger sale. We say Tommy Hilfiger, so it's probably good for him; but then again, it's the assholes who are going to buy his clothes."
All the designers agree that they are not there to antagonize the actor. Read says, "I like to meet the actors first, get a feel for what their ideas are, and at each fitting you get to know them more." "If someone hates brown or is itchy to wool, I'm not going to put them in wool, it doesn't work for anyone," says May, who adds that she is genuinely devoted to the concept of film as a group effort. "I'm very flexible as a designer, I do not get married to one idea and cry and fight for it. It's important for me to make the actors feel amazing, so when they walk on the set, they feel just like that person." It's true that sometimes this can be tricky. "In Romy and Michele, Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino wanted to look their personal best, but they also had to be funny; they were playing bimbos from the Valley, so something had to be not so perfect. There was a little bit of a struggle. That's when the director and I step in and talk about the character." Kurland says that Roberts, who is probably the biggest female star on the planet, is surprisingly sanguine about such matters. "I've dressed her in three films, and she always says, 'Let's be the character.' With Erin Brockovich, it's nothing that Julia would ever personally wear, but I'm a person who deals in character, and we went with the character."
Nor is anyone opposed to name designers being used if the occasion calls for it. "I do have a very good relationship with all the design houses, and I don't hesitate to call them," says Heimann. "Oxford Clothing custom-made all Nicolas Cage's suits for my next movie, Family Man, and on Anywhere But Here, Todd Oldham, who is a very good friend of Susan Sarandon's, gave me access to all his vintage fabrics. He made me things that weren't in his line--like those little shirts that Susan tied around her waist."
Although Bronson-Howard says "costume design is a bit of a dying art form," Heimann points out the influence movie styles can still have on fashion, even beyond the youth market. "People want to emulate characters they find appealing," she says. "If they find Uma Thurman's character in Pulp Fiction intriguing, they want to look like her. She's 6' tall, and every pair of pants I put on her was too short. So I said, 'Let's just go with it. Let me cut off another 2".' People said, 'Wow, I want that.' I made all her clothes, but every designer in the world has claimed credit for her white blouse, because they knocked it off."
On Reservoir Dogs, the thrift-shop movie, Heimann used "the three- and four-button jacket, because that's what I could find in multiples, and that's what fit the skinny guys. Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth were wearing almost vintage leather Beatles coats, with black Levis and boots. And I'm telling you, that's the Prada silhouette. Those films really entered the American consciousness."
May, who says that even when she's not working, "I'm always looking, always reading magazines and going to clubs, seeing what's going on, constantly, as just a part of me," feels that the conjunction of fashion and costume design is an exciting thing. "I'm so lucky, because I'm fashion design-trained, and I can bring movies and fashion together," she says. "You can look at Clueless or Never Been Kissed and get a sense of the culture; it's like making a social commentary with clothes."
The Walt Disney Studios Costume Dept. 500 S. Buena Vista St. Burbank, CA 91521 (818) 560-1000
Paramount Costume Department 5555 Melrose Ave., Backlot Operations Hollywood, CA 90038 (323) 956-5288
Sony Picture Studios/Wardrobe 10202 W. Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232 (310) 244-7260
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp./Fox Production Services (Wardrobe) 10201 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90035 (310) 369-1897
Universal Studios 100 Universal City Plaza Universal City, CA 91608 (800) 892-1979 Warner Bros. Studios Facilities 4000 Warner Blvd. Burbank, CA 91522 (818) 954-3000
Costume Rentals Corporation 11149 Vanowen St. North Hollywood, CA 91605 (818) 753-3700
Eastern Costume 7243 Coldwater Canyon Ave. North Hollywood, CA 91605 (818) 982-3611
Motion Picture Costumes & Supplies, Inc. 6844 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91605 (818) 764-8191
Palace Costume Co. 835 N. Fairfax Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90046 (323) 956-5288
Sportsrobe 8654 Hayden Place Culver City, CA 90232 (310) 559-3999 Uniform, Inc. 8146 Van Nuys Blvd. Panorama City, CA 90006 (818) 785-0477
Western Costume Company 11041 Vanowen St. North Hollywood, CA (818) 760-0900
Macy's Studio Services Beverly Center 8500 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90048
Bernini 344 N. Rodeo Dr. Beverly Hills, CA 90210 (310) 273-8786
Maxfield 817 N. Hilldale Ave. Beverly Hills, CA (310) 285-8534
Bill Hargate Costume 1117 N. Formosa Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90046 (323) 876-4432
John David Ridge 922 N. Vine St. Hollywood, CA 90038 (310) 657-0364
Eaves-Brooks Costume Co. 21-07 41st Ave. Long Island City, NY 11101 (718) 729-5118
Manhattan Costumes 250 W. 57 St. Suite 1609 New York, NY 10107 (212) 245-6770
ABH Design Inc. 163 W. 61 St. New York, NY 10021 (212) 688-3764
Barbara Matera Ltd.. 890 Broadway, Fifth Floor New York, NY 10003 (212) 475- 5006