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Director Damien Chazelle’s mandate to his costume designer on Babylon was simple: “I don’t want this to look like another ’20s movie.”
That edict translated into no flapper dresses, no cloche hats (on the principals) and no feathered headbands in the Paramount film, set to hit theaters Dec. 23. As the movie’s three-time Oscar-nominated costume designer, Mary Zophres, notes, “Damien wanted authenticity but didn’t want it to be a trope; he was like, ‘Bring me fresh ideas!’ ” Creating costumes for the epic about Hollywood debauchery and decadence during the late 1920s was a larger-than-life game of numbers where Zophres and her team built close to 10,000 costumes, ranging from items for a Singin’ in the Rain number to a nod to 1916’s Intolerance battle scene.
Costumes for each of the principal characters were designed with a muse in mind, representing the highs and lows of Hollywood. For Margot Robbie’s party girl extraordinaire turned starlet Nellie LaRoy, Clara Bow came to mind, while Li Jun Li as chanteuse Lady Fay Zhu channels Anna May Wong. Brad Pitt’s fading star Jack Conrad combines John Gilbert, early Gary Cooper, and a latter-day Clark Gable. Jean Smart, as gossip columnist Elinor St. John, is a dead ringer for Louella Parsons.
Introduced in the film’s opening sequence — a raucous, mind-blowing party that virtually assaults the senses at every turn — Robbie’s Nellie appears in a red silk playsuit with tap pants, perfect for crowd-surfing as well as dancing with no fewer than 250 people. “It’s actually an outfit based on a fabric that a vendor gave me,” says Zophres, “and the color is rich and vivid.” Together, the designer and the actress devised a backstory. “She comes from the East Coast and is probably a former dancer. Nellie goes to the party to be discovered and wraps this scarf around her body, tucks it into her shorts and lets it drape at the hip. She is kind of covered up, and it makes her look less naughty.” To give the actress some extra coverage, the designer added malleable boning inside the garment that would flatten out against her skin when she made contact with other actors. “Margot rehearsed the dance for six weeks and was down for it as long as they worked out the kinks and she didn’t expose herself. She knew Nellie was an uninhibited character and went for it in every way.”
Lady Fay’s character sports one of Chazelle’s favorite items, an elegant long and angular floral-printed cheongsam dress. “Damien loved it so much he wanted her to wear it to Jack’s pool party. It’s fantastic on her, and when she has a tango in that dress with Nellie in her overalls, there is the dichotomy of tomboy and femininity and strength and vulnerability, and the tables are turned,” Zophres says.
And for Pitt’s Jack Conrad, “we wanted Brad to be a sexy movie star and put him in high-waisted pants with button flies,” says the designer, who notes that the character mostly chose not to wear a jacket and tie. “He is a bon vivant and not super formal. Damien felt strongly about this, as you saw that look in a lot of movies in the ’20s where men went to parties in tuxedos but wore sportswear at home or on the set.” Conrad’s wardrobe includes a signature crème sweater and pants, a shawl-collar sweater and a leather jacket, all based on the idea of elegant sportswear.
And the one thing you won’t see in the film?” Zippers. “There is no such thing as a zipper in the entire movie,” says Zophres, noting they were not yet common in clothing.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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