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The Costumes of "Water for Elephants"

How designer Jacqueline West called on 1930s Hollywood to bring a Depression-era traveling circus to life for star Reese Witherspoon.
David James/Twentieth Century Fox Film

After wrapping Sony's 2010 juggernaut The Social Network, costume designer Jacqueline West was looking forward to "running off with the circus," she says. Literally.

The two-time Oscar nominee (for 2000's Quills and 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) began working on Fox's Water for Elephants in March 2010. Her mandate: to create a mix of showstopping Swarovski-encrusted performance wear and elegant evening gowns as well as minimalist Depression-era fashions. Based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel and set in various U.S. railroad towns, the drama follows a young veterinarian (Robert Pattinson) who joins a traveling circus and falls for the star performer and horse acrobat (Reese Witherspoon).

West and her 26-person team designed an astounding 500 original costumes in just 10 weeks, a feat as spectacular as the circus' elephant-on-a-ball balancing act. "It was a very short prep time," she says, "and you just don't find 1930s circus costumes on the rack of any costume house."

In constructing the dazzling Benzini Brothers Circus performance pieces for Witherspoon's bottle-blond Marlena (based on real-life early-20th century circus star and horsewoman Dorothy Herbert), West took inspiration from such iconic '30s film stars as Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. "There were brilliant movies made around that time," the designer says of her research. "Reese's character would probably try to emulate these stars and incorporate their clothes into her performance costumes and everyday looks."

West's team also viewed classic big-top films — including 1932's Polly of the Circus, starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, and 1933's I'm No Angel, starring Mae West and Cary Grant — before creating Marlena's satin bodysuits. The looks are embellished with blush-hued feathers, metallic beads and Swarovski crystals (which the jewel company donated to the production).

The designer even stumbled across an authentic 1930s piece from MGM's film Mata Hari in Western Wardrobes' costume warehouse. "I'm certain the headpiece Marlena wears during the elephant routine was from the film," West says of the East India-inspired ensemble. "It had a silver lace inside the frame that you just don't find anymore. I had my jeweler re-bead it with bright-blue stones to match her costume."

West believes Water's costumes, especially the bias-cut silk gowns, have the potential to influence the fashion zeitgeist. She says, "I think we're going to see a return to slinky, elegant looks inspired by the fabulous designers of the 1930s."

What do you think?

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