Costume Design for the Historical Figure
By Anna Wyckoff, Fall 2012
Like a Rembrandt portrait captures elusive and intangible qualities, Costume Design for the historical figure trades exactitude for evocation, embodying the person rather than merely recreating them. It is a technical feat for the Costume Designer to represent an individual the public has mythologized in way that is also true to life. Regardless of the limited time frame and varying budgets of film and television production, audiences do not consider the difficulty of the task, but only whether or not they believe in the depiction. But in the final analysis, the ultimate arbiter is history.
Four of our distinguished Guild members describe their recent experiences in the genre.
The Stovepipe Hat
Few figures are as recognizable as the silhouette of Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president of the United States has been the subject of many biopics, the latest of which, Lincoln, is designed by Joanna Johnston and stars Daniel Day Lewis. Johnston explains, “I suppose the challenge and the opportunity is that he is so famous and his image is so strong, I felt that he could easily become a caricature.”
Part archeologist, part psychologist, Johnston used the photographs of Mathew Brady as a touchstone. She was obsessed with the space between Lincoln and his garments. “He’s scrawny and skinny and doesn’t fill the clothes,” she explains, “there’s this kind of void in there, and I wanted to capture that. It’s a difficult quality for film, because sometimes translations can look ill fitting, so it’s a fine balance.” She used a set of garments from the end of Lincoln’s life housed at the Smithsonian Institution as a blueprint, but did not copy them exactly. Because some details were not quite right for the project she made incremental adjustments.
The movie developed over about three years, but the actual costume prep time was three months. As she was working on other projects Johnston began the initial research and the collaborative process with Director Steven Spielberg and Day-Lewis, of whom she says, “You can’t think of anybody better.”
It was an epic undertaking that included one hundred and forty speaking parts. The task did not end with making garments for principals and secondary principals, but also included the construction and aging of an army of Civil War uniforms. Because of the limitations of time and budget, Johnston had to carefully strategize which costumes to build. For some characters she made only one set of clothes so audiences would “hold the image of them through the film.” But there were also exceptions.
For the fashionable Mary Todd Lincoln played by Sally Field, Johnston recreated a dress from the Chicago History Museum. “It gave me every single tiny piece of information I needed. It gave me gave me her dimension, her neck to waist, her circumference in her waist, and her bust. It was the one garment Johnston copied exactly, but the dress was eventually cut from the final film. The rest of Mary Todd’s changes focused on capturing her essence.
“Because it has been a year since we filmed it, I can now see the bigger picture… and realize what an exceptional piece it was to work on.”
The Black Suit
Costume Designer Julie Weiss has known Hitchcock her whole life. “He was part of my dreams,” she explains. Weiss was first aware of the Hitchcock script a few years ago, and knew she wanted to be part of this quest. “Who would have thought a black suit could define a Costume Designer’s journey?” she asks. It is a legitimate question for a Costume Designer, but with someone whose clothing is as well known as Hitchcock, it is still a challenge.
Hitchcock’s black suit was only part of a man whose work and personality represent the darkness of intrigue. Weiss’ design process involves thorough scrutiny of the subject—from psyche to role in society and relationships—in order to construct the film’s world in garments that express the subtle psychological insights she has gleaned. Her poetic instincts translate into costume choices which are an expression of a character’s essential nature, and the roles they choose to play in their life.
“When you’re dealing with a character like Hitchcock who already is remembered as the man stepping into his own silhouette, a large man, who when you say his name, is not only remembered for extraordinary films,” explains Weiss, “You also think of him as someone who is remembered physically, with his voice and music as much as the films that he has directed. He is part of his own filmic history.” She continues, “What’s exciting is that if you have someone like Anthony Hopkins, you see that it’s not that important that he is a precise copy of Hitchcock, because then, that is what he would be: a copy. And when you’re dealing with someone like Hopkins and with a director like Sacha Gervasi, when you watch the two of them together, you see that interpretation is a very key word for the Costume Designer.”
Weiss aims to make a costume so characteristic that it seamlessly facilitates the actor’s transformation. She explains, “When you have that merger of Hopkins as Hitchcock and you get past that silhouette no matter how much of a hyperbole it has become… that means you are in the presence of a great actor. When Hopkins left the set, sometimes you didn’t know who he was leaving the set as, because Hitchcock was still there long after the costume came off. And that’s why I do it.”
“You can only do this with such a remarkable cast,” she continues. Weiss describes with wonder how Helen Mirren (as Alma Hitchcock) in a red suit becomes strong and in control, and in the next scene, wears a red dress sitting in a red chair, and becomes smaller and smaller. To Weiss, these are the moments that represent Costume Design.
“The assembling of the clothes, the fact that it was not a large budgeted project, you had to rely on the passion of the project, but the passion is nothing without a costume crew. Everyone who believed in this helped, including the costume houses,” expounds Weiss. “When you do a project like Hitchcock, once you start filming and you see what a glorious excursion it is, you realize that it could be one of the best things you could do with your life, and you hope it is not the last.”
There is celebrity, and then there is Elizabeth Taylor. Costume Designer Salvador Perez found himself faced with the epic challenge of depicting one of the most photographed historical women in the world, with a twist: he had to transform another famous personality, Lindsay Lohan, into the starring role for the Lifetime movie Liz and Dick.
He began with copious visual research, and Perez was surprised at the volume of information available. “You could Google Elizabeth Taylor or a particular era or date, and there would be an image,” he observes. “The public has a vast knowledge of what Elizabeth Taylor looked like and wore. Her iconic images are so embedded in peoples’ memories that we had to keep it authentic. We had to evoke Elizabeth Taylor, but flatter Lindsay Lohan,” explains Perez. He notes that Taylor and Lohan have a waist size within an inch of each other, but Lohan is slightly taller. Perez used a combination of vintage undergarments and recreations by lingerie specialists What Katie Did to flesh out the period silhouette.
But the challenge did not end there. Taylor was known not just for her style, but also for her furs and jewels. “How do you cover a woman in mink and diamonds on a television movie budget?” Perez questions. A longstanding relationship with furrier Edwards Lowell of Beverly Hills facilitated the answer: “They opened up their archives and let me rent some period pieces; we used so many furs that I could never have afforded to buy.”
The famous jewelry was reproduced by Skinny Dog Design Group. They recreated such celebrated pieces as the Peregrina Pearl, the Krupp Diamond and the Taylor-Burton Diamond (out of cubic zirconia.) 14 Karats in Beverly Hills made the set of Bulgari Emeralds. Additionally, Perez scoured Los Angeles for vintage baubles since there were over sixty changes for Lohan alone, and she was never without accessories.
Perez strove for authenticity, but a gap in the documentation of her private life required him to design casual looks in her style. In another instance, 20th Century Fox, who owns the copyright to Cleopatra, refused to allow the costumes to be reproduced. Perez used these setbacks as opportunities to be creative, aiming to summon the spirit of Taylor and the original film while thoroughly enjoying the process.
He created many looks for Grant Bowler who plays Richard Burton. Perez laughs as he explains, “Grant Bowler has an amazing physique but I had to make clothes appropriate to the period. We almost had to hide his body, because Richard Burton wasn’t in great shape.”
The final challenge was painting the scene around the principals. There were four hundred extras and over sixteen hundred costumes total. “Thankfully, Costume Rental Corporation [CRC] gave me carte blanche with their collection of sixties and seventies clothing,” says Perez, “We were doing 1951, 1963, and 1969 in one day, from a casual party on a boat to the opening of Hamlet.” Perez seems energized by the Herculean task. “I think that’s the difference,” he smiles, “As a Costume Designer you want to honor history, but still be able to be creative and design within that world.”
Before Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Cher, even before Elvis, there was Liberace—the original “Mr. Showmanship.” To conjure his opulent personality, Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick immersed herself in his world for HBO’s biopic Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It is told from the vantage point of his lover, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon, and is the story of their relationship.
Mirojnick unearthed reams of research, both public and private photos, and investigated performance footage and images. She found herself walking a tightrope between Liberace’s flamboyant stage persona, the more casual clothing of his personal life, and the deeply psychological script. Carefully considering not just the historical details, but the story the director was telling and what would it would take to transform Michael Douglas into Liberace without any feeling of parody or camp, Mirojnick sought “to really bring something to the character that will show the hidden depth, not just the outside decoration.”
Not only did Mirojnick have to recreate and interpret Liberace’s dazzling stage costumes, which were made in Hollywood using couture techniques and materials, she had an eight-week prep for the actual build. “From his jumpsuits to his capes, furs, diamonds, and rhinestones, there was no detail spared for Liberace… we had to do things to fool the eye,” she chuckles. The original garments were heavy, and Mirojnick marveled that Liberace could perform in them for hours. She chose to replicate certain signature pieces precisely, like the famed virgin fox coat rimmed in rhinestones with a sixteen-foot train, but in faux fur. “I worked night and day with Mary Ellen Field [at Bill Hargate] to beat the clock.”
In the casual clothes, Mirojnick strove for naturalness. “The wardrobe of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was, in fact, a fabulous male silhouette. Matt and Michael assumed it really easily. It gives a man a great shoulder, the armhole and pant rise is higher, which they had to get used to, but it didn’t take a long time. It really is a kind of superhero ‘Inverted V’, and I happen to think it is classic and handsome.”
“But it’s really a tough story,” adds Mirojnick. “It’s colorful, glittery, and exuberant, and it is dark at the same time. It was extraordinarily challenging, but to be able to get up every day and create these costumes is the best job in the world.”