Costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas proves that Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal (2009, directed by Anne Fletcher) does not need a closet full of clothes to make her mark. Here Catherine Marie Thomas discusses exclusively with Jill Burgess for Clothes on Film just why the film is so special to her.
Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is a big shot New York book editor, making life hell for her assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds). One morning Margaret is informed by her bosses that she has lost her visa status and will be deported to her native Canada. When Andrew appears to whisk her away from the meeting, Margaret announces to her bosses that she and Andrew are engaged to be married, which until now they have chosen to keep a secret. Margaret later talks Andrew into going along with her plan, but only after he makes some demands of his own: a promotion, publication of his manuscript, and Margaret accompanying him on a weekend trip to Alaska for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. Margaret agrees, and after proposing to Andrew on the sidewalk, on her knees (another of his demands), they strike a deal:
“It was interesting to develop that character,” Thomas says of Bullock’s character Margaret. “The suit became a focal point to define her.”
Finding inspiration in the iconic 1940s look of Katharine Hepburn and the on-screen chemistry between her and Spencer Tracy—and likening the energy between Bullock and Reynolds as being similar—Thomas built Margaret’s skirt suit in New York City, where she is based, with black pinstripe fabric purchased at Mood Designer Fabrics in the Garment District of Manhattan. Thomas describes Bullock as a physical actress, “a real collaborator who understands costume design and respects it.” Bullock requested that the 40s-style skirt have a longer length to make it harder for her to move around. “Her walk was stunted because of the skirt,” Thomas explains. The look she and Bullock were going for was “strong, pinned-up, buttoned-up, tight.”
Thomas describes the suit as having a “rounded strong shoulder” and peplum, with a thin black patent belt around the jacket. Completing the look were diamond stud earrings, a nude Prada bag, and black Christian Louboutin heels. As Thomas notes, “Margaret buys nice things. She has few items, but they are very nice.”
More nice things surface on the trip to Alaska as Margaret meets Andrew’s mother Grace (Mary Steenburgen) and grandmother Annie (Betty White). She alights from the plane in Sitka wearing a black trenchcoat, wide black patent leather belt, brown leather gloves, black Christian Louboutin peep toe pumps and Prada sunglasses. She totes Louis Vuitton luggage and, most outrageous of all, a gigantic orange Hermès Birkin, which was borrowed for the film, not from Hermès, but a private owner. In a serene setting with muted colors—Massachusetts stood in for Alaska on the shoot—the orange Birkin cannot help but stick out. Thomas explains that she and Bullock wanted to use the famous bag as a comedic device to show just how out of place big city Margaret is on a tiny Alaskan island.
Throughout a party thrown in honour of the counterfeit couple, Margaret attempts to remain incognito wearing a grey dress with a deep V-neckline, faux-wrap front and three-quarter sleeves, also built by Thomas and her team. This cringeworthy meet and greet highlights again how far removed city girl Margret is from the rural company in which she finds herself.
To pass the interview with overzealous immigrations officer Mr. Gilbertson (Denis O’Hare), who warned them of the risks of a sham marriage—deportation for her, a $250,000 fine and five years in federal prison for him—Margaret and Andrew must be able to answer intimate questions about each other. During a nighttime confessional, Margaret tells Andrew that her parents died when she was 16, that she has a tattoo of swallows on her back in their memory, and that her first music concert was Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock of “It Takes Two” fame.
Thomas says the lingerie Margaret wears in these scenes, Margaret in the bed, Andrew on the floor, was used to show Margaret “was feminine, soft inside.” In one scene she wears a blush-colored camisole and tap pants, both edged in ivory lace. In the other, she is in a black camisole trimmed in soft brown and pink. Margaret wears that same camisole the following morning when she and Andrew are awoken by Grace, Annie, and Andrew’s father Joe (Craig T. Nelson), who ask the that couple to get married in the family’s barn before returning to New York. Margaret and Andrew, not wanting to disappoint everyone, accept.
Margaret next finds herself in the woods praising Mother Earth with Betty White (in a traditional Alaskan “button blanket” cape) for bringing her and Andrew together in a look Thomas calls “classic but modern” and inspired by Audrey Hepburn. She wears a goldenrod sweater by Dries Van Noten, black cotton-linen pants, hems rolled up and fastened with gold buttons, a grey and white striped shirt and scarf by J. Crew and black ballet flats.
The impromptu wedding calls for a last minute dress so Annie lends Margaret her own wedding gown, a family heirloom from 1929. Thomas says two dresses had to be made, both of ivory 4-ply silk charmeuse, because when Margaret first tries on the gown it is too big: “It had to be believable that Betty White was pregnant in that dress,” she notes. Once properly fitted, it is an elegant column with dolman sleeves, covered buttons down the back to the waist and again at the sleeves from elbow to wrist, and a smocked diamond-shaped detail at the waist. Thomas says her concern when designing the gown was, “How do you make a totally covered up thing sexy and beautiful?”
Accessories were limited to a sprig of antique silk flowers in Margaret’s hair and a delicate blue pendant, straight from Thomas’ own jewelry box. Her team looked for the right necklace but when “nobody could find anything” she told them, “I might have the perfect thing.” It turned out to be a rectangular-shaped fire opal pendant in rose gold, a gift from her mother-in-law, and which she believes is from the turn of the century.
The next morning at the altar Margaret confesses to a stunned crowd that the wedding was a hoax to keep her in the country and calls the whole thing off, unwilling to ruin Andrew’s life since she has fallen in love with him. Escorted back to New York by Mr. Gilbertson, she wears a yellow V-neck sweater over a chartreuse silk tank, a long grey skirt, grey scarf, Prada sunglasses, nude heels, and, in a wonderful touch alluding to the swallows tattoo on her back (and only visible for a second), a 1940s silver Georg Jensen bird brooch, also Thomas’ own, which she used to wrap and secure the sweater.
Even in a resume filled with standout costume design work in films such as Whip It, Grey Gardens, and Kill Bill: Vo1. 1 and Vol. 2 (with Kumiko Ogawa), Thomas says The Proposal has a special place in her heart. She had worked with director Anne Fletcher on 27 Dresses prior to The Proposal and notes, “She’s an amazing woman director, so smart, so funny. It’s still rare to find a woman director like that in Hollywood.” Also making the film meaningful to her was the chance to collaborate with both Fletcher and Bullock. “It’s a special thing to work with strong intelligent women.”
Thomas describes Margaret’s arc as “going from buttoned-up to a reeling mess to giving into it” which Margaret does so in the end when her black skirt is still tight, but her beige and cream striped short-sleeved blouse is more casual and her hair is undone. Andrew returns to New York to find her packing up her office, about to leave for Canada. He puts a stop to it, telling her, “Marry me. Because I’d like to date you.”
By Jill Burgess, creator of Everything Just So.
With thanks to Catherine Marie Thomas.
You can watch movies online including Sandra Bullock in The Proposal at LOVEFiLM.com.
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