Michael Kaplan reveals he took cues from Queen Elizabeth's style as five Oscar-contending wardrobe pros share how they made strong female characters — from Wonder Woman to poker princess Molly Bloom — dress the part.
Today's new wave of feminism has opened up a cultural conversation about the meaning of women's power dressing, from pussy bows to pantsuits to all-black red carpet looks. The topic has played out onscreen, too, in the way the strong female characters in some of the season's costume design award-contender films have been represented, from Wonder Woman's more covered-up superhero armor, to Molly's Game's look-but-don't-touch game-time dresses. Here, five badass females and their wardrobe weapons, as explained by the costume designs.
A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Ridley Scott's crime thriller, which recounts the infamous 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty's 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III, stars Christopher Plummer (who replaced Kevin Spacey) as the iconic billionaire, Charlie Plummer as the younger Getty, Mark Wahlberg as former CIA agent Fletcher Chase, and Michelle Williams as John III's devoted mother, Gail Harris. Though Harris lacked the same Getty fortune, she still asserted her power and confidence through her wardrobe, as captured in the flashback scene when she wears a sophisticated vintage check-pattern dress and matching button-up jacket during her divorce negotiations, in which she won full custody of her son, and later again in the film when she's given paperwork to sign post-Getty death.
"That's an original, and we brought it out twice, because we thought she wouldn't have enough money. By that time she was living on her own, looking after the children. It basically fit her like a glove," says costume designer Janty Yates, who describes Gail's overall appearance as having a "casual Jackie O. feel."
Yates borrowed from Italian and English costume houses (Tirelli, Annamode, and Angels), and purchased from vintage warehouses in Naples and Portobello Road for the film's costumes. "When we flew to New York, we had 26 suitcases and I had 14 rails of vintage clothing to fit on Michelle when she walked into the hotel suite," recalls Yates.
Based on a 2014 book of the same name, this true story stars Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, the beautiful, young Olympic-level skier who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested by the FBI.
Set in Los Angeles and New York in the early 2000s, the film follows Bloom’s ascent to power, from wearing a froofy J.C. Penney dress her first hosting gig, to upping her fashion game for the Hollywood royalty, sports stars and business leaders that would eventually become her regulars. Costume designer Susan Lyall created 90-plus costumes for Chastain, who never wore the same outfit twice.
"The first stop is the book itself. Molly Bloom writes a lot about clothes, specifies labels of shoes and purses, even talks about getting a new beautiful watch," says Lyall, who sourced clothing from Roland Mouret, Altuzarra, Alexander McQueen, Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana and more.
"She used fashion like a weapon of war, and she's empowered by the tool of her sexuality," adds the designer, noting that when Molly hosts her first game solo, she knows what she's wearing has to be a home run. "She walks out in this black nude lace dress, and she looks almost naked. She made a calculated move to be as feminine as possible to transmit to the men in the room that maybe if they play cards there, women like her will flock to them."
Steven Spielberg's 1971-set political-news thriller stars Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of The Washington Post, and Tom Hanks as the paper's editor Ben Bradlee, as they race to expose a coverup of government secrets. Graham inherited the top job after the death of her husband, Post publisher Phil Graham, and the film's storyline has her discovering and asserting her power while navigating two worlds: one, Washington society and at-home domesticity; and the other, traditionally-male corridors of power the newsroom, the board room and the stock exchange.
Costume designer Ann Roth, whose career spans six decades and more than 200 films (The English Patient, The Birdcage, Silkwood, The Day of the Locust and Klute, among them), was charged with creating Graham's wardrobe for the film, from pussy bow blouses to a scene-stealing caftan that seemed to epitomize the duality of her character. She wears it in one of the most pivotal scenes in the film, when she has to ultimately decide whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers. Joined by a sea of powerful men at home late at night after hosting a dinner party, Graham looks out of place but is actually the most powerful person in the room.
"The caftan wasn't based on real life, it's just what I decided," says Roth, who found the Indian fabric in Edison, New Jersey. "I made every single stitch she wore. And yes, the clothes do follow a story arc. Meryl and I always do that."
A sweeping plot- and character-packed film, The Last Jedi also happens to be a gorgeous costume picture thanks to veteran designer Michael Kaplan, who used everything from haute couture to hot rods as references for the wardrobe, which he built in-studio, using his own millinery, jewelry and clothing design teams. "There's wonderful strong women, much more than we've seen ever before in a Star Wars film. And I think it's reflecting what's going on," says Kaplan of the script, which has princess turned general Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in charge of the rebel forces.
"When J.J. Abrams directed, his take on Princess Leia was much about practicality where she's wearing her jumpsuit. Coming on to Episode VIII, the script had more humor, more color, more flamboyant locations, and Rian Johnson's take on Leia was totally different," says Kaplan, who dressed Leia in a softly tailored metallic tweed cape and coat and statement earrings.
"One of my references was a photograph I found of Queen Elizabeth wearing a military cape. We also added a lot of jewelry," says Kaplan, describing how her earrings wound around the ear, covering the lobe. "She had much more of a regal look than she had in Episode VII, because that's what Rian wanted."
Having designed costumes for The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, Lindy Hemming is no stranger to creating superhero outfits, so it was only fitting that she was tasked with Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman uniform. Hemming continued with what costume designer Michael Wilkinson created for Batman v. Superman, but her version "had to be more practical because [Gal] did a lot more fighting [in Wonder Woman]," says Hemming, who used urethane, which is "softer than plastic," to make the combat-ready suit. A corset was crafted on the inside to anchor it to Gal Gadot's fit figure.
Hemming adds that she looked at the shapes of modern sportswear for women as inspiration. "I like the idea that everything on everybody is protected," she notes. "I was taking those style lines from sportswear and trying to put them into the new armor and making sure there was something about it that was recognizable to younger people, instead of being too archaic in shape."