Black Swan_Natalie Portman warm up_Image Credit Fox © 2011 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Black Swan: Amy Westcott Interview

Black Swan costume designer, Amy Westcott, BAFTA and CDG nominated for her work on the film, puts the record straight on controversy surrounding herself and Rodarte’s contribution, exactly what her role comprises, and how she feels about that Academy Award snub.

Amy Westcott worked with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky previously on The Wrestler in 2008, plus has been costume designer on over twenty features and seventy episodes of TV series Entourage. Here she talks exclusively to Clothes on Film:

Clothes on Film, Chris: Are you aware of the controversy surrounding yourself and fashion house Rodarte (the Mulleavy sisters) in the press; that they should be credited alongside you as costume designers?

Amy Westcott: Controversy is too complimentary a word for two people using their considerable self-publicising resources to loudly complain about their credit once they realised how good the film is.

CoF: Do you feel as though you are being vilified for something out of your hands?

AW: I was happy for Rodarte’s persistent publicity efforts at first; I’m so proud of the film and anything that brings it to an even wider audience is genuinely welcome. I tried to put aside my ego while being airbrushed from history in all of their interviews, as I’m just not that kind of person anyway. But when articles were planted that attacked me personally as if I had conspired against them I felt nothing but despair and betrayal. I don’t have a publicist working for me, needless to say, and I was asked to stay quiet –“not to engage”, to avoid any bad press towards the film. Unfortunately this seems to have proven detrimental to the perception of my work on Black Swan. I didn’t make the rules that the Guild and the Academy set and I am proud of my professionalism and commitment to my work, so to have my name dragged into such ill-informed gossip is galling and hurtful to say the least.

Interestingly, the overwhelming reaction from other costume designers has been very affirming. Apparently this has happened to a number of people, but this one just got more press.

The pink double breasted coat worn by Nina (Natalie Portman) was an original design by Amy Westcott.

CoF: How do you feel about missing out on an Academy Award nomination?

AW: It’s disappointing, but in some way, expected. I am in great company though – I mean, Chris Nolan? Mila Kunis? Ryan Gosling? The production design, make-up, special effects and writing also missed out and they were stellar!

CoF: Can you talk us through the costume design process on Black Swan?

AM: The process began for me a few months before shooting; Darren (Aronofsky), Thérèse (Thérèse DePrez, production designer), Matty (Matthew Libatique, director of photography) and I discussed research ideas and influences at great length and from this process the palette for the film emerged. Darren asked me to check out Rodarte to see if I’d be interested in collaborating on some of the ballet costumes. I thought their Vulture inspired line was wonderful and a perfect fit for the Swan Lake production at the end of the film. Darren and I shared all of our research/ideas, worked with Rodarte and together approved each aspect of the design for their designated costumes.

CoF: Who did design the stage wear seen at the end of the film, specifically the black feather tutu?

AW: The white and black swan were a collaboration between Rodarte, myself, and Darren, a fact that is completely concealed in the press. In all, there were 7 costumes in the collaboration with Rodarte, not the “40” that keeps coming up in the press. The core ballet was designed by Zack Brown (for American Ballet Theater), and my department and I added some feather detailing to assimilate them with the White Swan.

CoF: Has this situation made you wary of working with fashion designers again?

AW: Absolutely. I was too trusting, and never saw this “controversy” coming. Suffice to say that I will never be put in this position again.

During rehearsal scenes the ballet troupe wear custom garments and separates by professional dancewear brand Yumiko. Nina also dons a Petit Bateau tank.

CoF: Can you explain to us then, in layman’s terms, what a costume designer does?

AM: Yes. As a costume designer, you oversee every stitch that goes before the camera. You are responsible for everything, whether an item is designed by me, purchased, farmed out to a specialised item designer or a combination of all of these. I think that is greatly misunderstood. The job is a 24/7, a 5 or 6 month commitment. You are there, on set, making choices, setting the tone, and making changes – every day. You are there for the actors, to make sure they are happy, or have any questions – every day. You work very closely with the director to express his or her vision. You’re responsible for the look, making sure things are functional, making sure you are on budget, as well as managing your department.

Another very common misconception is that costume design and fashion are directly related. Although one can and often does influence the other, they are not.

CoF: The colour palette in Black Swan is very specific. Presumably it is intended to be noticed by the audience?

AW: Yes it is. Although the audience will happily never know how hard it was to obtain tonally. Everything had to be camera tested because there was so much colour fluctuation to be fine tuned with fabrics. Film stock can really change the look of the colour, so we had to get the tones down, and go from there.

We used the palette to show the evolution of Nina’s character, and the awaking of her sexuality.

Nina’s pashmina was bought on Canal Street, New York. One of the pink scarves seen in the film was actually white and dyed pink, purchased from Atrium on Broadway.

CoF: What research did you conduct into ballet stage and rehearsal wear?

AW: For me that was the best part. It was everything from watching performances to books and movies; not just ballet films, but films that were in the same “tone”, such as The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski) or had similarities in the characters’ relationships, such as The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke). But the most beneficial form of research for me was the relationships I formed with actual ballet dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. I watched them in rehearsals and talked to them for hours. It allowed me a view into the ballet world, watching them break in their shoes to taking off layers during class. I would covertly take their pictures while they were coming and going to classes to get the right feel for outerwear and bags. We really wanted it to be realistic as possible.

CoF: So, the intention was to depict a realistic portrayal of the ballet world despite the abstract nature of the story?

AW: Yes, but it was because of, not in spite of, the abstract. It was important to keep the film grounded in reality so the fantasy aspect could be accepted. Keep its feet on the ground, so to speak.

Leg warmers are worn by ballet dancers on particularly tight or pained muscles, which is why Nina is sometimes wearing just one at a time; the idea being that she, like dancers everywhere, have different aches and pains that need to be focused on that day.

CoF: What are you most proud of on the film?

AW: I’m proud of the teamwork and high aesthetic standards on such a tight budget. I’m proud to have been a part of such a unique and original film, and so proud that is has been so well received.

CoF: How was working with Darren Aronofsky again after The Wrestler? Is he specific about costume?

AW: Yes, he is. He is specific about everything, but he also surrounds himself with people that he trusts to do a great job. Darren isn’t the “you are so great!” kind of a director. He kind of eggs you on to be the best you can be by not praising you. For example, Day 1 of shooting The Wrestler, everyone was running around like crazy (Mickey Rourke was convinced that I lost his weight belt, which was retrieved from his apartment), and everything was perfect except for one tiny detail that fell through the cracks. It was so tiny, but Darren was disappointed, and told me so. He was right, and I busted my ass to never let him down again.

All sketches by Amy Westcott.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

  • Kai

    Thank you for this, this whole time reading about Black Swan costume design was informed that Rodarte had played a huge role in the process of the film. Hearing from the costume designer herself and the process she went through for the film was very informative. I eat my words about her not doing heavy lifting.

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  • Zoe Howerska

    I really enjoyed this article – mainly because apart from this blog, in the mainstream media, I think designers get very little credit for the ridiculous amounts of hard work they put in- there is a core misconception about what a designer, or a costume department even does on film sets.

    I think every designer has had this problem at some time – yes we use the same tools, but fashion and costume are utterly different worlds. In one, you are the centre of the room ,and you provide a boutique service. In the other you are performing a craft service, and are usually the least important person in the room because you learn to become part of a massive team of people all working as a beautifully oiled machine.

    Also, I think the issue here and why the media were so ready to say the designer wasn’t doing her job properly is because theres a basic misunderstanding – that a costume designer has to source things from a myriad of places, often shops, often costume hire- because you don’t always have a budget to design and produce all the garments you would like to! No matter what the budget is, it’s always finite and has it’s limits. By Rodarte reasoning, Angels’ costume hire should be winning Oscars.

    Im just pleased that Amy Westcott was able to get some vilification.

    • Laura Swanbeck

      I think the word you’re thinking of is “vindication.”

  • CGCStyle

    Having worked as a fashion designer, wardrobe assistant, and a costume designer for independent films, I appreciate (and know) all the work that goes into designing couture dresses, and the work involved in creating, and realizing the vision of a director. It is well known that Givenchy designed dresses for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Edith Head was given the Academy Award. Amy brought the complete vision to life as the costume designer, and Rodarte assisted her and the director in creating that vision.

  • http://www.lauriebstyle.com Laurie Brucker

    This was an incredible interview. Inspiring, challenging and enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to look into to this, inspire us and really give credit where credit is due. This was the first piece I’ve read of yours and you officially have a new permanent fan and reader.

  • ilissa

    Is it me or does there always seem to be some sort of problem with those Mulleavy’s, what is there problem?
    They should be happy that Amy gave them money for those tu-tu’s and you know they weren’t cheap…if you know what i mean.
    Amy is right the minute that movie got hot their over inflated ego’s kicked right in, and then they wanted a piece of her action thinking they designed the film.
    That horsey one looks like the instigator and nothing but trouble.If anyone else is doing a movie and thinking of rodarte..just look at the horsey one and run!

    • cas2256

      I have worked with the Mulleavy sisters, and they have no ego whatsoever. I think what happened was a misunderstanding. Laura and Kate don’t think they designed the film. The press has made more out of this than anyone. The reason why they got so much attention out of it is because they are a big hit in the fashion world right now, and it is a known fact that Natalie is a huge supporter. Also, the tutus were amazing and garnered a lot of the attention on their own.

    • gina

      You don’t even know how to spell properly let alone know what you are talking about. Sounds like Amy hired you to write, but didn’t know you didn’t even know the difference between “there” and “their”. Also, just because someone is overweight, does not mean you have the right to judge and call them names. Shows how much class you have!

  • http://www.onthisdayinfashion.com Ali B.

    Great interview! I myself was confused from the start by the Mulleavys taking full credit for Black Swan’s costumes—it’s clear from watching the trailer, let alone the whole movie, that they only contributed to the film’s costumes. But perhaps the fashion press is more to blame than the sisters are. They do (rightfully) fawn over them so.

  • elisha barlow

    awesome article. I clicked for controversy, I’ll admit it as a huge Rodarte fan. I’m a bit suprsied by her comment in the beginning and hope it doesn’t hurt her career as she comes across knowledgable and grateful in the rest of the article. A good read and I wondered what the other side had to say. Thanks!

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  • http://www.theballetbag.com The Ballet Bag

    Thanks, this was a great – eye-opening – piece. At least here in the UK Rodarte’s efforts to get the lion’s share of costume credits have been very obvious – ahead of its release the movie was covered in every glossy last month and none failed to mention the sisters’ tutus…

  • http://thirty-days.co.uk Antonia

    Great interview, so glad to finally see Ms Westcott getting her voice and the truth out there. This has been a hot topic in my household for some weeks and I’m so glad to see that she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.

  • Annie

    I must admit although I have followed all the publicity for Black Swan I was unaware of any controversy or ego involved. It was obvious that the Rodarte collaboration was being used by the marketing department to bring a certain target audience of women to the film inspite of it being an Arnofsky film, any interview I saw with the sisters was solely about the specific costumes for the ballet within the film – I didn’t even know they designed anything other than the Swan Costumes and never saw them take credit for the whole film. Where did this ego inflation happen? Is it just because they thought they should be on the nomination and then found out they were wrong?

    This seems more like media looking for clicks (which admittedly worked and brought me here) but the “public” won’t really know or care, it’s like cinemetography they might agree that a film should win but they’ll have no idea who won or what it’s really being awarded for 10 minutes after the announcement – they’ll just know that the movie won.

    It’s a shame Ms. Wescott took it so personally and is looking to apparently hold a grudge instead of live and learn — it seems like both sides really don’t know much about the “business” of the other side. It seems like a misunderstanding that has now morphed into hard feelings.

    • Cera

      I would say, of course its personal…thats her work. Her blood and tears. She might be mad at the Press, and shes probably a little mad at the M sisters too b/c it seems that they stirred the pot. A.W. has been doing this a loooooooong time. The M sisters should have been the one’s to, as you say, “learn from this”.

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  • Julia

    This to me seems like a mis-communication on both parts. I think that Westcott’s first comments on the Mulleavy sister’s was both harsh and unnecessary. it is clear that they aren’t the press-hungry money mongers that Westcott is making them out to be. I’ve watched a few interviews with them discussing their work in the film and they have never taken any credit for any designs but the ones they did for the swan ballet–which they did in fact design their are sketches to prove it. In fact the sisters are known for being notoriously press-shy.

    I think that this was a bit of controversy made up by the press and fuelled by a lack of communication on both sides. The sister’s have never spoken against Westcott and I think that she took the low road by choosing to speak out against them directly. Although I do believe that Westcott deserves to be the sole receiver of any awards I think she should of dealt with the issue more eloquently. In fact–many people saw the film for the sole reason that Rodarte had a part in it.

    Also, the fact that both the sisters are very good friends with the film’s star, Natalie Portman so in some way she is also speaking against her. I think that Westcott shouldn’t have spoken out against Kate and Laura specifically but how the press took and issue and blew it out of proportion. It seems as if she has succumbed to another myth made up by the press–and given them exactly what they wanted…..more controversy.

  • B

    How unfortunate that this probably contributed to Black Swan’s lack of an Academy Award nomination. Wescott and the Mulleavy sisters deserve credit for their part of the visual spectacle that Black Swan provided for its audience. Yes, perhaps Rodarte has received more recognition than they deserved for the film’s overall costume design. However, they played a large role in the creation of the film’s most spectacular costumes (who didn’t gasp at Portman’s white and black swan ensembles at the end of the film?) and thus, this recognition is not entirely undeserved. In addition, the aforementioned ensembles are so evocative of previous Rodarte collections- particularly the renowned “Apocalypse Now” Spring 2010 show- that the fashion media was practically drooling. Although the Rodarte PR machine certainly overhyped the designers’ role in creating Portman’s looks, they cannot be blamed for the media’s eagerness to accept and emphasize this association.

  • Sally

    Thank you for telling the story of the actual costume designer of the film. So often the fashion industry hi-jacks the work of the costume designer who’s job is not about what’s in style or what label you’re wearing but who’s job is to help tell the story and define the characters through the costumes. When it’s successful, everyone wants to look like that character.
    As for all that Oscar talk from the Rodarte sisters… it’s simply not the type of film that gets noticed by Oscar voters in this catagory. It has nothing to do with the sisters not being eligible. Seriously.

  • Mandrágora

    WOW! Great interview, is nice to read the words of Amy and see the way she develope her work. And good for your questions!!

  • Nicolas

    it’s a great post , and such a sublime itw ! Black Swan is a wonderfull movie, reading your lines about costume designer’s work makes me think about all these “petites mains” in fashion show without nothing is possible.
    Thank You

  • Grosse Pointe Blank

    Nice to hear words from an old friend whose work I have admired for over 25 years. Thank you for this interview/posting. The film was amazing and the costume design certainly deserved an Oscar nod. As Ms. Westcott explains, the production role of Costume Designer, and many other key production roles in film production, goes much farther than just the design of one or many specific costumes used on the set of a film. Costume Design is the interpretation of the Director’s vision for the film and how the characters are woven into the “mise-en-scene” for the audience. I don’t think she means to take anything away from their contribution to the film, however, Ms. Westcott is certainly in her right to defend her trade and art from being confused with mainstream fashion design and current trends one may see in the film, which seems to be the point of contention. The two arts are seemingly the same for the layman, but are perhaps worlds apart for the purists from each side of the debate.

  • Aline

    Great interview! I am looking for any information I can find about the knitted pieces for Black Swan…the knitters, patterns, and yarns used. Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you!

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  • ruby

    Grabby, pushy, sister fashion designers Rodarte haven’t the first clue about costume design for film, and vulture-like seized upon this exposure with no grace, or respect for film collaborators.
    Well done Amy Westcott, you did a wonderful job and defended yourself admirably. It is a horrible position to find yourself, and unexpected in the professional world, to meet 2 women with such gaul to take credit for others work. I’m afraid the fashion world is one-dimensional, and film is four-dimensional. In my experience, fashionistas have looked down their noses at costume, but it is beyond their limited understanding of ‘what looks nice’. They wouldn’t understand story, movement, temporality, atmosphere, character….

  • Maggi Mercado

    Collaborations often lead to ruffled feathers, no pun intended. Expectations need to be clearly defined up front.The truth is often exagerated by the PR machine with little concern for the truth or those who do the brunt of the work and research.This great article puts a different, more hunane tone on the work behind the scenes. I hope that Miss Wescott will not become bitter because of this.

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  • Lucy

    I love film BLACK SWAN. Natalie portman is my idol. and the pink coat in the film Black Swan is very beautiful…please, Where does the coat order? I want it. It´s amazing…I´m from Slowakia,but in Slowakia that coat isn´t :/ :(

  • Nancy

    I’m wondering who makes Nina’s white shrug? The one she wears during practice and is kind of thin.