Designers Behind the 'Promising Young Woman' Nurse Dress, 'Mulan' Witch Outfit and More on Creating Fashion Magic Onscreen

11:15 AM 3/19/2021

by Fawnia Soo Hoo

The Costume Designers Guild Awards nominees share their inspirations and challenges in creating memorable looks: "The fellows today are so muscular. … We had to find more fabric."

Costume Design
Courtesy of Jenny Beavan; Focus Features;Courtesy of Bina Daigeler; Netflix; Courtesy of Charlese Antoinette Jones; Gareth Gatrell/NETFLIX

With the Costume Designers Guild set to announce its 2021 winners virtually at its annual awards ceremony April  13 —streaming live on Twitter — 14 nominees in the film categories discuss their most talked-about costumes, the ones that were hardest to pull off, and when it’s OK to break period  rules.

  • Jenny Beavan ('Dolittle')

    What's one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging?

    I think the diving suit was the look that got the most comments. The helmet was brilliantly made by Marc Trunk, a costume prop maker whom I met on Mad Max Fury Road. I was trying to work out what he could have made it out of, and a cauldron seemed the perfect Dolittle base for the helmet. I found some research for some wacky period diving suits and Rob Allsop, another fine prop maker, made the suit as if it had been made out of old waxed sails. His flippers were palm fronds.

    What is the costume that you can’t believe you pulled off?

    I think Dolittle's surgical robe and beard covering were the strangest. … I think this worked because it was on an actor like Robert [Downey Jr.], who is such a huge, charismatic presence onscreen, he can pull it off. It is only when you try on, drape on and work with the actor that you really know whether a look will work or not. I find fitting the most important part of the process in finding the look and the character.

    Since there are no boundaries for fantasy, at what point do you determine when you're going over the top? 

    I think if the clothes feel "true" you have not gone over the top. I have to have a story to justify every garment that I will put on an actor. So as long as I believe that story, I feel OK.

  • Erin Benach ('Birds of Prey')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off?  

    The leather-etched gold jumpsuit was the most challenging to design. Superhero suits are often made out of neoprene or spandex, but I wanted leather, which is hard to move in but looks amazing. If it weren’t for Dale Wibben this costume would not have survived all of the stunts, kicks, turns and moves Harley has to do.

  • Donna Berwick ('Da 5 Bloods')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off?  

    The Vietnam War-era uniforms. They were made in Bangkok by Siam Costumes. An original-era uniform was sent as a sample, with lots of details, and they did a beautiful job. But the fellows today are so muscular in comparison [to the ’70s]. The sizing was off on the thighs, et cetera. We had to find more fabric and add gussets and such. Then we had a tremendous job aging them.

  • Alexandra Byrne ('Emma')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging? 

    Mr. Knightley’s dressing and undressing sequences have received a lot of attention. His shirts and cravats were starched the traditional way; after days of testing, we found the right recipe for the cravat to crack as Knightley lowers his chin.

    What is the costume that you can’t believe you pulled off?

    Emma's wedding dress, because the wedding is the culmination of her story rather than a, "Here comes the bride" moment.

  • Massimo Cantini Parrini ('Pinocchio')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    The snail costume is with no doubt the one that impressed the most. It is an animal that can hide back into its shell and create a stubborn distance between itself and the outside world. The colors are translucent, mostly mauve. I chose this color because it evokes calm and serenity.

    Since there are no boundaries for fantasy, at what point do you determine when you're going over the top?  

    I often think of painters like Picasso. He invented Cubism, not because he could not draw, but because he mastered the concept of painting better than anyone else at the time. Similarly, it should work for our profession. Therefore, fantasy should have no frontier.

  • Bina Daigeler ('Mulan')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    For the costume of Li Gong, our witch, Niki [Caro, the director] and I started with a different idea — a floaty, airy design — and ended up with a leather construction, very strong and empowering. But we kept the floaty sleeves. I loved the idea that they finally got used as a weapon in her fight scenes.

  • Lou Eyrich ('The Prom')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off?  

    People seem to be enjoying Meryl Streep’s look as Dee Dee and the color palette, which is bold, confident and stands out in a crowd.

  • Trayce Gigi Field ('Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging?  

    Barb and Star are obsessed with culottes. It’s their idea of the quintessential vacation piece. Both sets — the dress-up dinner culottes and the finale culottes — were my custom designs.

    What is the costume that you can’t believe you pulled off?   

    The Dr. Lady villain finale look. This custom design was a mix of chic with over-the-top fabulousness. The process entailed sourcing the thinnest of neoprene, which then was speciality embossed — adding feathers, a hood, handmade gloves and an aerodynamic custom cape. The finale look needed to be show-stopping yet functional for every element possible and all the characters' amazing action sequences.

  • Lindy Hemming ('Wonder Woman 1984')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    The golden armor was the most challenging design, and it required all the resources of my brilliant department to pull it off.  Gal [Gadot] deserves a medal for wearing it with the wings, which was very tough to do.

    Since there are no boundaries for fantasy, at what point do you determine when you're going over the top? 

    There are boundaries in superhero films, which are mainly to do with the fact that a superhero is an iconic character. Even though my work is to come up with new and fresh ways of interpreting the particular look, it still has to be recognizably "the superhero we know and love."

  • Francine Jamison-Tanchuck ('One Night in Miami')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging? 

    One look that has received much attention is how the outfits of the four iconic men — Sam Cooke,  Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown — complemented  each other. I wanted these four men to be known through the clothing as individuals who happen to love one another as  friends.

    What is the costume that you can’t believe you pulled off?   

    The hats of Eli [Goree] as Cassius Clay — not so much as it being too difficult to re-create, but I wanted to make sure they were as accurate as possible because of his leadership and to honor his religious beliefs.

  • Charlese Antoinette Jones ('Judas and the Black Messiah')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging? 

    LaKeith [Stanfield, as Bill O’Neal]’s trench is period-specific in the design and shape, but the length is not period-correct. But the shot we got when it’s blowing behind him makes it so worth breaking the "rules.'"

     What is the costume that you can’t believe you pulled off?    

    I definitely think it was Deborah's [Dominique Fishback] robe, since we had to design the fabric, print it in New York City and ship it back to Cleveland in time for our tailor to make it for camera. We printed the fabric two to three times before it felt right. I got to show Mama Akua (the fiancee of Fred Hampton at the time of his death) the swatch of the fabric and she approved it. When does that ever happen? 

  • Nancy Steiner ('Promising Young Woman')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    The "naughty nurse" costume at the end is the one I get asked  about the most. I designed the dress using a PVC fabric that was more sturdy so it wouldn’t rip during the action in the scene.

  • Trish Summerville ('Mank')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    Amanda [Seyfried]’s gold lamé dress. For that time period, lamé was considered quite glamorous. It is challenging to work with, as it shows every flaw. Luckily, the cutter-fitter, Marilyn Madsen, is just excellent at gowns and really took a lot of time and care in it.

  • Michael Wilkinson ('Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey')

    What’s one look from your nominated work that received the most attention or was the most challenging to pull off? 

    Gustafson [Keegan-Michael Key] had to do the most challenging choreography in a sharply tailored Victorian suit. We came up with ways to work with his moves, like hidden panels of stretch fabrics.

    Since there are no boundaries for fantasy, at what point do you determine when you're going over the top? 

    Every day on Jingle Jangle, I was treading this line. I would put together an idea to present to the director [David E. Talbert], and he would invariably say, "That looks great. Now let’s push it some more!" We cast the net wide with our exploration and use of incredible fabrics from across Africa. I was drawn to the personality of each textile and would match each piece to the personality of our characters. That way the designs stayed grounded.

    A version of this story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.