'Phantom Thread' Costume Designer on Creating the Look of a Fictional Fashion House

Set in the world of London haute couture in the 1950s, Phantom Thread is one of the most compelling films of the year for costume design. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says will be his final film, as Reynolds Woodcock, an obsessive designer (aren't they all?) cut from the same cloth as real-life fashion eccentrics Cristobal Balenciaga, Charles Worth and Alexander McQueen.

Woodcock, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), and their couture workers at his London maison are locked in a quietly suffocating routine of sketching, showing and sewing collections for heiresses, socialites and debutantes who are drawn to his conservative and proper style (certainly compared to French couturiers of the day Christian Dior and Givenchy), until an Eastern European waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes along and their whirlwind romance turns his carefully tailored life upside down.

Mark Bridges is the costume designer who was charged with creating an aesthetic for the film's fictional fashion house, making 50 original garments, including those for an onscreen runway show, and helping to define Woodcock's crazy-sexy, creative genius character. In his eighth feature with Anderson, Bridges had the pleasure of being able to work like a couture designer himself, sourcing the sumptuous fabrics from around the world for the film's '50s party dresses and Savile Row tailoring, and having the clothes handmade by a workroom with a long heritage in the London fashion industry. I chatted with him about how he did it.

What did Paul want to convey in this film about what it's like to be a fashion designer?

You always want to have it feel real. We were trying to communicate who Woodcock is, that he's creative in terms of draping and touching the fabrics, but also has the temperament of an artist. 

I love that you worked with Paul and Daniel to determine the "codes of the house." What were the stylistic components of the Woodcock label and why?

Rich colors, rich fabrics with a nod to historical references, and a heavy use of laces. We looked at who was doing what in London in the mid-1950s in terms of fashion design. John Cavanagh was working in wools; Norman Hartnell was doing heavy embroidery, Digby Morton was doing riffs on Aran sweaters. The historical references were what Charles Creed was doing. So we sort of skirted the edges of what was happening and what people weren't doing in London at the time to come up with it.

Was Balenciaga an influence?

Not as much in the clothes as the character — Reynolds actually drapes his own clothes like Balenciaga as opposed to Dior who didn't, and how Cyril runs the business operations is similar to the way the main saleswoman of Balenciaga ran the show and the workroom.

Did you have to hold back at all in terms of not making the gowns too over-to-top for the time and place?

No, not really. I'm really specific about time and place and character, and we also had the taste of my director, too. It wasn't going to be about groundbreaking flights of fancy like Dior or Balenciaga, it was going to be tried-and-true, artistic, substantial gowns that had an element of femininity but were strong in their own right.

There were some exquisite laces and taffetas. How did you find them?

A lot were gotten in London, in Rome as well, a couple in New York and from the Lyon area. Then we had a beautiful piece of 17th century Flemish lace for that lavender dress. I thought green taffeta was perfect for the American heiress because, you know, moneybags!

I'm interested in the clothing Reynolds himself wears. His windowpane-check jacket and ascots were incredible. And his colored socks were so playful, why?

That was Daniel's own idea as far as giving that character a stamp of individuality. There is an element of men who dress well in London, for whom the eccentricities are in the details. Those socks were from Gammarelli in Rome, which makes socks for the pope and Vatican clergy, and he wears them with everything. It was grounding for his character. I usually don't try to draw attention to the feet, but I think when you see them it reinforces this is not your ordinary person, but he has really specific tastes.

Famously method actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who is known to truly inhabit his roles, actually learned dressmaking for this film — I'm wondering if he gave you any notes? Or maybe Reynolds did!

Well, I'm there to facilitate the performance, so sometimes if I was at a crossroads with a fabric choice or color choice, I would include Reynolds in on the decision. I trust that man's taste, and he would choose a color and we'd run it by Paul and run up the garment. If at all possible, I loved his input.

You got to work with Savile Row as well, right?

They had sources for fabrics, and we'd talk about a certain weight for it to feel more of the period. It's difficult to find heavy wools now that central heating is prevalent. But Daniel will always wear a heavy wool. He's game for it if it's right for the character, and he's the only actor I know who will take it on. Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard, as tried-and-true as they are, were really excited about making that blue herringbone wool coat for him. They don't really make a raglan sleeve like we used. The tailor said three people in the shop tried it on because they were so excited about it. What we were asking for was inspiring to them, which was fun because I thought they'd seen it all.

What was the best part of the experience — and are the costumes going on tour?

I was so lucky to have an amazing shop and cutters. My main cutter comes from a background where her mother worked in couture and she was amazingly faithful to the techniques. The costumes get so little screen time, so they are really worth another pass. Going by the dresses on the stands, there's something about the luster of the silk satin, the incredible texture and how it hits the light of that changeable silk taffeta. Some of them will be on display at the ArcLight and at the upcoming Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising's "Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design" exhibition. 

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