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Formative Friendships in Armageddon Time
The 1980 backdrop of James Gray’s semi-autobiographical drama feels familiar: A celebrity turned politician challenges the establishment, racial tensions simmer and socioeconomic disparities loom large. And one comforting time-honored aspect endures: Queens sixth-graders Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) dress alike. “Because they’re best friends,” says costume designer Madeline Weeks, who kept the cast in late-’70s wardrobe, conveying the era’s pre-fast-fashion consumer mindset.
Paul, from a middle-class, two-parent Jewish family, and Johnny, a Black boy confronting the daily trauma of racism at school (and in the world at large), bond over their creative aspirations. Paul fantasizes of being a “famous artist,” while Johnny yearns to join NASA and see a Sugarhill Gang concert. “Johnny and Paul love style,” says Weeks. Like the period’s New York City youth, Paul, in burnt orange and green, and Johnny, in “soulful” blues, wear copious layers: shirts over tees or turtlenecks and then jackets. “Those hopes and dreams we want to reflect in their clothes,” says Weeks.
The boys, in coordinating on-trend stripes, sneak away from a Guggenheim school trip anticipating an exhilarating Manhattan afternoon. Weeks imagined where Paul’s teacher mom, Esther (Anne Hathaway), would have shopped for his mustard turtleneck and long-sleeve shirt. “James once said to me, ‘Think Sears,’ ” she recalls. Johnny flips through treasured vinyl in a brown and blue velour polo that his grandmother, suffering from dementia, may have procured in the neighborhood during more lucid times. Says Weeks, “It’s such a feeling of best friends having the most awesome day of their lives.”
Wandering Souls in Bones and All
Feeling invincible and carefree is a hallmark of youth, but perhaps especially so for two road-tripping teenage cannibals finding themselves — and each other. A willowy, mulleted Lee (Timothée Chalamet) first catches the attention of newly arrived Maren (Taylor Russell) after they both jump to defend a woman being harassed at the grocery store. To consume the offending meathead, Lee shrewdly removes his soft blue floral shirt, which costume designer Giulia Piersanti imagined was a reworked ’30s-era dress that the flesh-eater snagged from a previous meal.
“Lee is a wanderer who travels dirty, with almost no one close with him. Most of his wardrobe is borrowed from people he has eaten,” explains director Luca Guadagnino’s go-to design colleague. For Lee’s eclectic, thrift-store style, Piersanti studied the “rebel subculture” of itinerant teenagers covertly boarding trains and traversing the country. “I wanted to bring to Lee the same sense of these outsiders’ strong personal style, carried with the carelessness of youth,” she says. “I wanted the clothes to have a lot of life, to get really dirty and soaked in blood.”
The film kicks off with Duran Duran’s 1982 ballad “Save a Prayer,” and Lee rocks out to 1983’s “Lick It Up” by Kiss, but Piersanti imagined his fashion foreshadowing the grittier, gender-fluid ’90s-grunge aesthetics. Bucking ’80s peg-legged jeans, Lee wears his denim low-slung, wide-legged and ultra-distressed to eventually be slashed into jorts by the summer-set finale. “I wanted him to keep [the jeans] through the whole time,” says Piersanti, adding a “random rope” as a belt “to show a carelessness and practicality to Lee.”
Musical Modes in Empire of Light
In a coastal English town, new cinema employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) initially connects with his colleagues through his love of two-tone. Originating in England in the ’70s, second-wave ska could also be representative of Stephen himself: a young Black British man whose mother emigrated from Jamaica, making his own way in the social, racial and economic turmoil of the early Thatcher era. “It was a real cusp period,” says costume designer Alexandra Byrne, pointing to the decade’s mods, goths, skinheads and two-tone’s rudeboys scrappily expressing their individualism through progressive (and subversive) music and fashion.
On New Year’s Eve, Stephen joins the theater’s lonely duty manager, Hilary (Olivia Colman), on the rooftop. As exploding fireworks ring in 1981, the audience viscerally feels her long-suppressed emotions emerge — also amplified through Stephen’s gleaming suit and jaunty fedora, which is essential to the two-tone “uniform.” Byrne explains that his suit silhouette is a “very, very specific thing” to the genre, with a three-button jacket and 5-inch vents.
The Oscar winner also considered the psychology behind Stephen’s capsule wardrobe, with pieces repeated throughout the film. Emphasizing his youth and budget practicality, his narrow black tie, secured into a “tiny knot,” acquired a sheen from over-ironing and bears a “tiny hole” from wear. Living in a pre-internet small town and splurging with months of salary reserves, the aspiring architect would have mail-ordered the suit from “something like the NME magazine,” says Byrne. “You would save all your money to buy the really important pieces to identify your look.”
Power Dressing in I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Legendary record executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) signing 19-year-old protégé Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) to his RCA imprint, Arista Records, made music history in 1983. To re-create the moment, costume designer Charlese Antoinette fortuitously found a vintage sweater, circa late-’70s/early-’80s, nearly identical to the gradient-striped V-neck worn by Davis for the historically documented deal. “Sweaters aren’t being made like this anymore,” says Antoinette, pointing out the plush “bouclé, almost hand-knit” texture. “It was obviously sold in a really high-end store somewhere because Clive had good taste.”
Reflecting the real-life persona, Tucci’s Davis is “always dressed,” says Antoinette. “There’s never a time in the film where he’s just in a T-shirt.” To portray Davis’ “classic” music mogul style, she sourced pristine vintage in luxurious materials: “cashmeres, wools, wool-silk blend.” Antoinette also meticulously selected fabrics to replicate Davis’ recognizable power suits and shirts, all appropriately bespoke by Manhattan-based Leonard Logsdail and Anto in Beverly Hills, respectively. The biopic largely unfolds in chronological order, with the lapels on Davis’ double-breasted suits and tie-width clocking the passage of time from the early ’80s into the 2000s.
The consistent upscale power dressing also helps subliminally telegraph why burgeoning talent, like Houston, would entrust Davis with shaping her career. “It says a lot about him,” says Antoinette. “Like, he’s an old-school record executive: seasoned and really professional. It also makes him feel really, really likable — and dependable.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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