“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

December 26, 2013

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an adaptation of a short story by the same name, which was written by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker in 1939. The film, which stars and is directed by Ben Stiller, is about a reticent man with an active imagination, who escapes his anonymous life by falling into a world of fantasies, full of action, romance and heroism. When his career at Time-Life magazine is threatened, he takes a step towards acting out his vivid fantasies, embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

When it came to dressing the character, Costume Designer Sarah Edwards felt fortunate that Ben Stiller served dual roles as director and actor. “I feel it simplified the process, [requiring] only one collaboration instead of two, a sort of shorthand that made for a very strong focus on Walter’s costumes,” Edwards says. “Ben works very hard and cares deeply about the costumes, hair, and makeup design. He devotes a great deal of time to these areas, in the pursuit of creating a character to tell his story. Concept meetings, research review, fittings, screen-tests—no details are too small for his time and attention.”

Edwards particularly liked the costume that Walter wears to work because of what it represents, its functionality, and how it helps to explain what is taking place within that space. As Edwards explains, “[It’s] Walter slipping away into middle age and obsoleteness, the slow death, as he and his co-workers are phased out by a new digital era. The idea for this costume was that somehow Walter was frozen in a kind of recent past.”

The color palette in the office was purposefully de-saturated and so were the costumes, providing a drab starting point for Walter. This helped to provide dramatic visual contrast to Walter’s later jump “into a kaleidoscopic adventure, full of color and passion and living. This helped define the important transition from ‘old Walter’ to ‘new Walter,’ from the rigidness of the uniform for which he starts out to becoming a hip, more laid back ,handsome and rugged Walter,” Edwards says.

The designer’s greatest challenge was finding the perfect components to tell just the right story and enable Stiller to become Walter. In order to capture just the right look, Edwards did lots of research, procuring samples, conducting fittings, and screen-testing. “Although it seems simple,” says Edwards “I’m afraid the old adage, ‘nothing is ever simple’ holds true here.”

Walter’s office costume consists of grey slacks, a button-down shirt, a tan windbreaker and a navy tie. Edwards found the tan jacket at JC Penny. It was out of season and there were only a few left, so in order to generate multiples, Edwards had it sourced from all over the country and then completely re-cut to fit Stiller. The pants are from Ralph Lauren’s Black Label, and were procured from every store in the world and then ultimately made for Ben. The shirts were custom made in New York, NY by Carl at CEGO. After producing 35 shirts, they ran out of fabric and had to dye yardage to match for the rest. Edwards also needed various sizes for stunt doubles and photo doubles, and additional sizes that would fit over wet suits and dry suits, (both clean and dirtied). The tie was the most difficult of all, as Edwards found a great Armani tie from last season and managed to find just enough of them to scrape by—until there was a change in the script. The edit required Walter to tear his tie in half, grip rocks in his hands, and skateboard down a mountain. After that, Edwards and her team resorted to silk screening the fabric and making the ties from scratch.

In addition to his clothing, Walter also wears a vintage camera tie clip, which Edwards had cast and custom made by a local jeweler in New York. Thankfully she did not have a problem sourcing his brown square toe Florsheim shoes. “Miraculously, [they were] available everywhere,” the designer says. “I guess they were not in hot demand!”

For Edwards, “this costume really shows Walter sacrificing his own dreams, and desires, becoming mired in an obsolete job, going nowhere, except in his mind. This really is a sad costume in a way, but it allows for a trajectory into a happier place filled with exotic locales, love, and excitement, and ultimately cooler clothes! [Without] this costume…there is no story, it’s the beginning, the jumping off point.”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opened in theaters nationwide this week.

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