How 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' 'Little Women' Costume Designers Found Their Sartorial Spark

12:00 PM 1/30/2020

by Scott Huver

See the eclectic mood boards and faded family photos, impressionist art and muscle cars that evoked eras and inspired this year’s Oscar-nominated pros.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

  • 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox

    Knowing that, as seen through the eyes of Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), the vision of his chic, sophisticated mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), would be far more vivacious than standard sad, drab, washed-out World War II palettes, Mayes C. Rubeo turned to the avant-garde Parisian textile artist Sonia Delaunay and her bold design work for inspiration.

    "She was the co-founder of a very important artistic wave," says Rubeo. "Her work is so abstract in different shapes of geometrics, and it was really ahead of her time — very colorful. I thought, 'Who better to represent Jojo's mother?' We like to believe that Frau Betzler was a part of a very interesting, eclectic group of artists before the war."

    Delaunay's textile patterns were directly translated into Rosie's wardrobe. "The geometric forms were applied to her costumes in an artful way," Rubeo says, via strikingly patterned and vibrantly colored clothing — which were especially ideal for camouflaging Rosie's hidden anti-Nazi agendas. "Her disguise was not concealing, because concealed was not what she always was: This eclectic, fantastic, intellectual artist [was] happy for life and happy for color."

  • 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures

    Reading Quentin Tarantino's script and love letter to 1969 Los Angeles, Arianne Phillips was captivated by the rich car-radio culture evoked by reference material from local Top 40 station KHJ. "I was lucky enough to find some of the playlists from the specific time that our story takes place," says Phillips. "I made mix CDs and listened to them constantly when I was prepping, and it really set the tone for me."

    The costume pro adds, "Music is such a great way to immerse myself in a time and a place." She notes that the chart diversity reflected the transitional era. "This is a culture explosion … beautifully reflected in this playlist. It's a cross section of pop songs at the time, from folk to country to pop to R&B. And that was the essence of what I wanted to express in the costumes."

    Whether it's Sharon Tate's (Margot Robbie) hip Hollywood scene, the industry establishment at Musso & Frank or the Topanga Canyon hippie crowd, "being able to experience what perhaps any one of our characters in our film would have been listening to really helped guide me on my way," she says.

  • 'The Irishman'

    Niko Tavernise/Netflix

    When crafting the look for the aged mob foot soldier Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson opted for intimate authenticity. "There's a group of wonderful photos that we received from the Sheeran family that really provided a bit of a Rosetta stone for the direction that we took," says Peterson.

    "They were faded photographs, family snapshots [that] showed his vulnerability," says Powell, who sketched a nursing home style contrary to the sharply dressed, intimidating younger Frank. "They were quite inspiring. It actually felt like this was the real man." Stylish, blingy talismans worn by Frank throughout his life contrasted with ugly sneakers and track pants "up to his chest … that came from Goodwill for about 20 cents," chuckles Powell. "He's still the best turned out in the nursing home … even though he's looking particularly pathetic and vulnerable at the same time."

    The screen interpretation of Sheeran's style embodies "what happens at the end of your life when you don't go down in a spectacular blaze of glory," says Peterson. "You have to actually live out your days knowing everything that you've done."

  • 'Joker'

    Niko Tavernise/Wanrer Bros. Entertainment

    Mark Bridges found "the DNA" for Gotham City clothing circa 1981 when production designer Mark Friedberg shared photographer Langdon Clay's book featuring distinctly hued, shopworn '70s-era cars set against stark, gritty streets. "As soon as I saw them, I knew what the jumping-off point would be," says Bridges. "Odd period colors with a layer of soot on it, and everything having seen better days."

    Adds Bridges, "The cars are incredibly vibrant in this desolate urban landscape … there's a lot of color in the vapor lighting, and it feels kind of dirty. It really seemed like I found the key to the secret garden with these images."

    The vehicular aesthetic translated into items like the dingy mustard hoodie, grimy blue-gray trousers and grungy wine-colored vest worn by Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). "We did lots of aging and dying and searching out period colors to create the overall feel of these photographs," Bridges says. One specially crafted textile was dubbed "Dirty Laundry." "Arthur would probably just shove all of his laundry — no matter what color it was — and his mom's together: It becomes a mush."

  • 'Little Women'

    Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

    To envision a fresh interpretation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Jacqueline Durran embraced the gauzily rendered, bright watercolor American impressionism of the late 19th century, embodied by artists like Winslow Homer. "It was the right date and the right geographical place," says Durran, "and just totally perfect for expressing the idea of young people living in a natural environment away from the city, having a freedom, a life and a geography that you don't generally associate with people of that period."

    For a particular dress worn by Meg March (Emma Watson), Durran was directly inspired by French artist Aristide Maillol's Woman With a Parasol, created slightly after impressionism's heyday. "The spirit of it was just so perfect that I just cheated and made Meg's beach dress," she says. "With a little bit more of Meg's styling so that she had the kind of crochet petticoat and a few more Meg details — but essentially I wanted to capture the feeling in that painting."

    "The very pale pistachio color of her dress is something that is repeated in different ways throughout Meg's wardrobe again and again," notes Durran.

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.