Actress Amanda Crew as Helen Hemsley in "The Identical." Costume design by Karyn Wagner. Image courtesy of City of Peace Films.

“The Identical”

September 5, 2014

To view “The Identical” an Elvis biopic is to miss the point. The film is more of a “what if” fantasy that asks difficult questions about what would happen if twins were separated at birth and one became an iconic rock star and the other struggled to balance his love for music with his desire to please his father.

With this story about children, focus turns to the twins’ mother, played here by Amanda Crew as impoverished Southerner, Helen Hemsley. Blake Rayne, a well-known Elvis impersonator, plays the twins, Ryan Wade and Drexel Hemsley. The movie spans the 1930s to the 1970s, providing Costume Designer Karyn Wagner with a vast time span to work her magic. Wagner, a third-generation member of the entertainment industry, said that a costume has to both illustrate a character and also fulfill audience expectations.

“There’s a covenant you hold with the audience,” she said. That implicit agreement requires her to gauge historical accuracy against popular perception.

“In the very beginning of the film when the twins are born, everyone is in Depression-era wear. Though there were lots of beautiful fabrics in that era–sateens and lace–if you use those, people start thinking that these folks are wealthy. But sepia-toned cotton means ‘Depression.’”

For a key flashback scene, Crew’s character picks cotton in the field wearing a simple dress and a floppy cotton bonnet modeled on those worn by African-American sharecroppers of the era, a significant symbol in the era of segregation. The bonnet, Wagner said, illustrated that the Hemsley family was taught to believe that everyone is equal.

“William and Helen Hemsley had no problem working shoulder to shoulder with black people because they considered themselves to be just the same. The bonnet was kind of a tie-in to that thought process,” Wagner said.

Wagner bought the 1930-era dress for about $15 from a Nashville antique store.

“I loved the fact that I didn’t get it from the rental house. When it’s been in a rental house, it gets somehow emotionally sanitized,” Wagner said. “When you look at a piece of clothing and you see wear on the shoulder, you know they carried their purse on that side. Or a stain here or a something there and you can surmise that they baked, or had kids that slobbered or whatever it is.

“It’s funny because the actors love that authenticity, too,” Wagner said.

“Amanda is so tiny that it fit her perfectly, as if it had been made for her,” Wagner said. “We didn’t even take it in.” The aged dress required a little tender-loving-care, however.

“The fabric was quite fragile so we reinforced it with pieces of calico, as if she had mended it herself,” Wagner said. She wore the dress buttoned to the neck, partly to be modest when she bent over, but also to prevent insects from crawling into her clothes.

Wagner said the simple-looking muslin bonnet was subjected to a complex series of aging and distressing treatments–bleach, dyeing, sanding, hot dryers and more.

“You do the fabric distressing and put in a permanent stain where they would have sweated, and distress the strings that it is tied with so there is no sense of newness anywhere,” Wagner said. “The newness is distracting. That’s part of the covenant. The audience has to believe that this is real wear.”

Though distressing and aging is a time-consuming process, it’s necessary, and in the end, a key component of the Costume Designer’s art.

“That’s what I love so much about what I do,” Wagner said. ‘It’s not the clothes, it’s the story. If I can tell a story with one dress and no one really notices the dress, but they get the story, that’s the hugest compliment of all.”

“The Identical” is currently playing in theaters.

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