Costume design is more than just period – much more. Contemporary costume has an even tougher job of defining character and establishing setting. Yet every once in a while a period film comes along with clothes, hats and accessories so impeccably researched and realised on screen that it is impossible not to get swept along in the majesty of the past.
Predominately early 1930s set Lawless is one such example. Costume designer Margot Wilson (The Thin Red Line, The Proposition, The Road), has created one of the richest costume palettes of 2012, and all in a believable real world setting. Speaking exclusively to Clothes on Film, Ms. Wilson talks us through her process:
Clothes on Film: How did you undertake your research for Lawless?
Margot Wilson: As always reading the script quite a number of times and then researching the period. Late 1920’s to early 30’s. I also like to research at least 10 years prior to the period the film is set in practically if it’s set in rural areas. I may not use any of this that far back but I like to have it in the back of my mind. I research all mediums. The great advantage of having worked with the director before is that you are aware of the script’s subject matter way ahead of pre-production. This gives you time to do some decent research.
Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant. Margot Wilson appreciated the contrast between his tough persona and soft knitwear attire, “I love the fact that it puts the audience into a comfortable mind set and then is surprised by the explosive behaviour of the one who wears a cardigan”.
CoF: Was period authenticity an important factor?
MW: Authenticity is important and certainly dictates and reinforces the visual sensibilities of the project and for the audience as well. On occasions I have strayed from it slightly if a character is worthy of going left of field. While doing this I’m still mindful of the big picture.
I love fabrics. They’re very important and I was lucky enough to find some great fabrics from the 30’s. Fabrics say a lot about a character; choose the right fabric for the right character and you’re half way there. Researching fabrics is also a part of the process. The sad thing about fabrics today is that most of the old fabrics aren’t manufactured any more. The beautiful craft has disappeared and it’s getting harder and harder to source. Unfortunately it’s a dying art.
CoF: We can read the brothers by the clothes they wear: Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) in his battered cardigan, choosing whatever is most comfortable; Howard (Jason Clarke) contentedly scruffy, wearing his years of alcohol abuse; Jack (Shia Labouf), his trousers too short and threadbare, then embracing the city vibe in luxurious striped suits. Was this your intention, to give each brother a separate costume personality?
MW: Absolutely; you only have to look at families today. Siblings are quite different even though they come from the same family – that has not changed through time. Also visually these three men didn’t physically look alike so I wasn’t going to beat my brains out trying to get the brotherhood happening on a visual sense. That happens when they come together as actors and start to act together as a family. This is the fourth element that gives birth to a character; costume, hair, make-up, actors.
So for me, I played on their own physical structure and their development throughout the script. All the brothers start off as young boys together in the story and I wanted to give visual clues that they carried on into adulthood. This idea is probably more pronounced in film than real life, as there is only such a short time to get the point across. I had three great cutters – Jeff Gillies, Randie Saxxon, Caroline Errington and about four seamstresses that followed the brothers’ costumes through from the young boys to the adult characters. I think this is important to have the continuity so the feel of the costume is carried through.
Jessica Chastain’s costumes as former Burlesque dancer Maggie Beauford were the only ones not to undergo aging.
CoF: Have you heard of the term ‘Hardigan’? It’s becoming the buzz word to describe Tom Hardy’s cardigan look. You may have started a new trend.
MW: No, I haven’t heard that. Oh that’s funny. I loved designing all the brothers’ costumes, keeping them all separate. They all had their single paths but Forrest was the most challenging.
(Margot Wilson talks in detail about Forrest Bondurant’s costume HERE)
CoF: Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) is a ray of colour amongst the brothers’ earth tones. Although this colour drains slightly toward the end of the story, Maggie always retains her luminosity. Was this how you intended the audience to view her character?
MW: Yes, Maggie was a ray of sunshine in their lives. John Hillcoat and I decided that Maggie would be the one along with Bertha’s dress from Jack that would carry the colour of the film. She comes to Black water station and starts to breathe some life into the place. She starts fixing up the place a little, dancing and some cooking. Slowly as she becomes more familiar with Forrest her colours become more rested and similar to Forrest’s.
Maggie’s sea green dress caused a catastrophe for Wilson when it came into contact with lipstick, “The whole bottom half front and back had to be hand dyed again, re-cut and re-made in a short period of time”.
CoF: Maggie’s city fashions are beautiful, the red velvet dress especially. Were they your own design?
MW: All the costumes are my own design. We built all the main characters’ costumes and support cast and some of the extras. One of the first things I do is draw all the designs so John can see where I’m heading. All the brothers had multiples built on all their outfits. Maggie’s costumes were all designed and made to fit the period. The red dress was cut by April McCoy, a very talented woman’s cutter from Boston. It was a tricky one to handle, as it was all cut on the bias and had the very thin bias inserts around the forearms. The sea green dress was all hand dyed and cut. We had a bit of an accident with the green dress. It got some marks on it and lipstick so it had to go to the dry cleaners. When the girls went to pick it up it had these huge white marks on the front the size of apples. It also went through to the back. Unfortunately the dry cleaners had accidently dropped their dry cleaning fluid on to the dress. We still needed the dress so the whole bottom half of the dress front and back had to be hand dyed again in the two different tones of the sea green, re-cut and re-made in a short period of time.
Her knitted sweater was from an old black and white photo that I loved and we had it re-made.
CoF: Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) is the only other main female character in the film and is obviously far more subdued due to her religious upbringing. How did you go about researching her costume?
Mia’s look came from a hybrid of religious moments. Not wanting to depict any one group.
I researched a lot of different religious groups and settled on Mia’s look along with her fellow worshippers. It was also important that she was different from Maggie and unattainable to Jack in the beginning. It was also important that Bertha was a challenge to Jack as this reinforced Jack’s character striving for everything out of his reach.
Shia Labouf as Jack Bondurant and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska). Labouf’s character goes through the most dramatic costume changes in the film as he acquires money and attempts to elevate his social status. This results in an amusing scene when Jack shows off his new overcoat to Bertha with the handwritten price tag still visible.
CoF: The floral yellow dress is stunning; it heightens Bertha’s delicate innocence and youth…
MW: I found this fabric in Atlanta in a little fabric shop. There was only a small amount on the roll so I bought it all. The fabric was off white, not that great, so I had it dyed yellow. We needed two of Bertha’s dresses and just managed to squeeze them out with a little left over to burn in the fire.
When designing Bertha’s dress the fabric said it all, so all I needed to do was keep it simple, keeping in mind that Jack would be the one buying the dress for Bertha and realistically something that he knew she would wear and he would love to see her in.
CoF: Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is an extreme man in many ways, including costume. Did you just let loose with his character – push it as far as you could?
MW: I think we all had fun with Charlie Rakes. It’s always great when there’s an extreme character to design for. All Rakes’ suits were built; bits of some of Rakes’ suits were fashioned from old suits in the 30’s. The gloves were made. He had many pairs, a pair for each suit. The gloves came about as the character didn’t like touching surfaces or objects. We certainly push Rakes’ character further than any of the others. I wanted to keep him as far as possible away from the brothers’ look. All sharp lines; nothing soft. You needed to dislike him as soon as you saw him and know that he came from a different place.
Little details set Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes apart, such as the unusual cuff stitching (similar to a frock coat) on his blue pick-and-pick suit, but Wilson confirms it was really all about the gloves, “Rakes had many pairs, a pair for each suit. He didn’t like touching surfaces or objects”.
CoF: Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) is what we might term a classic 1930s gangster in terms of clothing. He created his own rules, mixing patterns and stripes; classic but with a hint of loud. Is he intended to represent the archetypal Chicago gangster?
MW: Floyd Banner of all the characters was the most archetypal. Having mainly males in the film, it was important to give them all their own identify. Floyd was a mentor to Jack and feared by his own men so it was important to give him a presence that was familiar to the audience.
CoF: How did you go about aging/distressing the costumes, particularly for the brothers? One of the best things about the costumes in Lawless is just how lived in and real they look.
MW: The distressing is a long process and is done in stages by very delicate hands. I had a great distressing department headed by Esther Marquis (head art finisher). They worked hard to push the volume of costumes through. All the multiples of the brothers, there was an endless stream; the extras as well and support cast. The only costumes we didn’t age were Maggie’s.
I had a great hard working team on Lawless gathered together by Suzy Freeman (costume supervisor). None of the above would have been possible without them.
With thanks to Margot Wilson.
You can watch Tom Hardy in Inception at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2012 – 2013, Chris Laverty.