March 28, 2014
When crafting the look of “Noah,” the $130 million Old Testament epic written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson had the special challenge of making a familiar story look and feel new.
Don’t expect the flowing, white robes of the Bible. “This film was an opportunity to do raw and rough textiles, but contrast them with modern, strong, edgy silhouettes,” says Wilkinson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for “American Hustle.”
Starring Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Naameh, and Emma Watson as the orphan Il-la, “Noah” retells the animal ark tale from an environmental angle that proved to be great creative fuel for Wilkinson. The characters wear rough-hewn fabrics and nubby knits in earthy shades of brown, gray and green, each piece layered, belted and wrapped. Men and women alike wear trousers and silhouettes inspired by Wilkinson’s appreciation for iconoclast fashion designers Martin Margiela and Rick Owens.
Conversations with Aronofsky established the visual theme for Wilkinson. “He wanted the audience to not know if the film was set 5,000 years in the past, or 5,000 years in the future, so there was a wonderful ambiguity,” he says. With an idea that his costumes would invoke “antique textiles and contemporary, protective outerwear,” Wilkinson began creating a look for what he calls a “post-industrial, apocalyptic world.” His influences include the dense landscapes of painter Anselm Kiefer and Columbia, the outdoor outfitters, mixed for a modern Noah.
As protector of animals and rebuilder of humanity, Noah is a man at one with the natural world, and his wardrobe reflects his and his family’s worldview.
“In a sense they are almost the first vegans. They are into having a compassionate relationship with not only humans, but also animals and plants,” says Wilkinson. “We want to express that through the clothes.” As a result, Noah and his family wear no animal products, but choose vegetable-dyed plant fibers such as hemp, jute, linen and cotton. “We even tried to avoid too much wool,” he says.
Though many of the wovens were imported from Morocco, other materials had to be freshly constructed to look appropriately ancient. “We had this amazing lab in the costume department to create textiles,” says Wilkinson, who was joined by fabric artist Matt Reitsma.
“He was burning and rubberizing and etching into fabrics with acids, and laminating three or four fabrics together and sandpapering them to reveal different layers,” says Wilkinson. “There is a rather raw language of fabrics.”
A skirt and tunic combination created for Watson’s Il-la character illustrates several of Wilkinson’s costume concepts. Her long, raw linen skirt is painted with naturalistic striations and defined by frayed edges at the seams. Her duo of open-weave tunics is a collaboration with young discovery Alexandra Greiner, a young fashion student and designer.
“We hired her and had her experiment with different techniques and fibers and came up with fabric. There was a looseness in the way she put things together,” says Wilkinson.
Watson’s costume also reflects the character’s new surroundings.
“She wears it at the end of the film when–spoiler alert, in case you’re not up to date with the Old Testament—the arc has arrived on land. They’re in a less toxic environment, so more skin shows,” Wilkinson says.
Creating fabrics to conjure an apocalyptic world was a challenge Wilkinson welcomed.
“It really was a great opportunity for us to explore different construction techniques. We wanted it to feel as if it was all made by hand, but we also wanted to avoid the expected Biblical robes and techniques,” he says. The New York-based costume crew became adept at hand looming, knot work and braiding to create many of the costumes, which were subjected to elaborate camera tests to gauge how they’d change colors, shrink or grow. After all, the clothes had to withstand drenching in a flood literally of biblical proportions.
“Noah” opens in theaters and IMAX on March 28.