Motherless in Brooklyn

November, 20th, 2019

By Anna Wyckoff

Costume Design is in the blood for Amy Roth. Growing up with the legendary Ann Roth as an aunt meant a childhood spent paying attention to the person represented in clothing details. “When you come home from a party your parents would say, ‘Who was there? What went on?’ Ann would ask, ‘What was everyone wearing?’ Walking down a street she’d say, ‘Look at that man. Look at his clothes.’ Then she would explain it all. She was always gathering data.”

To create the characters for Motherless in Brooklyn, which is based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, Amy Roth would perform a deep dive into the people of the film and combine them with her knowledge of the unique talents of the cast. Lionel Essrog, played by Edward Norton who also directs the movie, is a character with Tourette syndrome. Rescued from an abusive orphanage in the 1950s, Roth pictured him on the street selling newspapers to survive. “I did the lace up boots, flared trousers—clothes that keep you warm through layers,” she explains. “As he develops, he becomes more like his mentor Frank Mena (Bruce Willis) and begins to dress the part. Lionel puts on a suit and tie in order to go into his new world, but I wanted to give it ease and movement because he is such a wonderful physical actor. I don’t think the character had any new clothes. Maybe he takes an old shirt and puts on a new tie and a jacket that came from Mina. It’s very mismatched, he doesn’t look suited up necessarily.”

The rich backstory meant paying particular attention to the aging of the clothes, a process that Roth has a passion for. “That’s my favorite thing, because I know it’s so important to an actor.” She loves the results, but the techniques of aging are also half the fun. “I’m careful not to allow use of any harsh chemicals. But there are simple, effective ways to breaking down, like washing a shirt a lot and then over drying. I love a little Vaseline around the inside of the neck of a shirt, with a little dirt thrown dirt in.”

Roth finds refining the nuances pays off in the fitting room when the actors react to their costumes. “When they look in the mirror, they see the character—like maybe he just picked his shirt up off the floor, maybe he gets a phone call. ‘We need you!’ …And he goes running out the door. That reality is what it’s all about.”

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