'Charlie's Angels' Costume Designer Dishes on Kristen Stewart's "Sexy Barbie" Look

Chiabella James
From left, Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Elizabeth Banks in a scene from 'Charlie’s Angels.'

"You see Kristen contributing heroics in high heels and a minidress, while Ella does it in a waitress uniform. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing; you can have a job as an Angel," says Kym Barrett.

[The following story contains spoilers from Charlie's Angels.]

Kym Barrett describes her costume design work for Charlie’s Angels as “a nomadic existence,” in which clothes often were crafted in hotel rooms or the back of a truck while the production trekked from Dresden to Hamburg to Berlin and Istanbul. But she's not complaining, for the same reason that Barrett loves to change up her projects, with a varied résumé that includes Aquaman, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Jordan Peele’s Us

“I like to be doing several things at once,” Barrett explains during a call from Australia, where she’s working on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, set for release in 2021. “I’d rather mix things up so my mind doesn’t get stuck in one area. When you’re puzzling everything together, you’re never bored.” 

Barrett signed on for Charlie’s Angels, the Sony reboot starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska, which hit theaters Nov. 15, after reading the script and meeting with writer/director/producer Elizabeth Banks, as well as receiving a call from cinematographer Bill Pope. “It’s always nice to know that somebody else whose opinion I trust is on the project as well,” adds Barrett, who worked with Pope on The Matrix series. “With each job I’m considering, I also think, 'Can I see a way through where I’m artistically and intellectually excited to be a part of it?'” 

Even as the schedule felt rushed or tight at times, Barrett notes that she thoroughly enjoyed working with Banks. “Elizabeth is a great director to work with — she’s very pragmatic, she knows what she wants, and she’s also very efficient with her time,” Barrett says. “If we knew we had 15 minutes [for a meeting], she’d come in and boom, boom, boom, a decision was made and I knew what to do. The actors also were able to understand that process and really appreciated it.” 

Barrett also appreciated that Banks didn’t spell out every detail in the script, instead letting the costumes sometimes convey aspects of storytelling. “That could be very liberating for the actresses — Kristen really enjoyed that part, because it allowed her to explore different parts of her persona,” Barrett says. 

That idea was especially true of some of the disguises worn by Stewart’s character, Angel Sabina Wilson. “Kristen is the true chameleon of the group, really playing a bunch of different roles, and that suits her backstory and her own personality as well,” Barrett says. “It seemed really fun that she could go from a sexy Barbie doll in a pink sequined minidress to hanging off a helicopter in a harness in the same scene, after she’s removed her wig and high heels. Within a lot of scenes, people start by wearing one thing and end up wearing something else. This process is part of their daily lives.” 

Pink indeed became a theme for Stewart’s character, for reasons that extended beyond Barbie-like symbolism. “We wanted that hard juxtaposition to Kristen’s character, because she liked to play with the ideas of darkness and then the happiness of pink,” Barrett explains. “It was definitely a discussion and became her signature color when her character was in disguise. It was an opportunity in the script to exploit the fun of certain moments, but in some instances there are a lot of people in a scene, and you really want to be able to see where she is and what she’s doing.” 

However, Banks wasn’t interested in anything that felt too comical or precious; instead, pragmatism was key to many of the looks created for the women playing the three Angels at the center of the storyline. “Elizabeth always wanted a very accessible costume look,” Barrett says. “We weren’t going for dress-up laughs as much as we were real action that could be done in real clothes."

Subtle differences were created to differentiate the everyday looks of Stewart, Scott and Balinska and offered clues to their pre-Angel lives. “Ella’s character comes from this gun-fighting, MI6 background, but in some ways she’s also the softie of the group, the one who understands more about the big picture on inequality in the world,” Barrett explains. “Naomi’s character, meanwhile, is a clever, very intelligent girl, but she’s been working for a company where she’s been treated as though she’s invisible. And she’s not earning much money, so her look is sort of H&M-meets-Zara. Then she’s introduced into the world of the Angels, and her eyes open to this world that’s somewhat limitless and doesn’t discriminate.” 

In addition to directing, Banks also appears in the film as the modern-day Bosley, but pulling double duty often meant that her costume fittings were last on the schedule. “Her character is a professional, wealthy woman, someone who always looks well-traveled and effortless,” Barrett says. “In our fittings, the girls were always taken care of first, and then Elizabeth had to work with sometimes what was left over among what we had to work with, but she was unconcerned. There was no ego about looking better than any of the Angels; we kept her simple and chic and not overly fashionable. I gave her super accessories, like a great pair of shoes, and a Max Mara coat can make anything look really beautiful.” 

Key costume sequences in the film include a group of bright racing silks, with Stewart again in pink, for a scene shot at a horse racing track in Istanbul. “I remember it was really cold and rainy, and we had to create a palette that would feel really festive,” Barrett recalls. “There were days in Istanbul when it was sunny, but this wasn’t among those days. And it was about creating a colorful, interesting background for the action.” 

Barrett worked with a Berlin-based milliner to create a Derby Day-style pillbox hat Scott wears for the racing scene; fold in the racing and skydiving helmets and “a beautiful panama hat worn by one of the bad guys,” and the designer knew all that headgear would become a conversation with Pope. “Hats are fun, but they’re not always fun for a DP, because they impact how faces are lit,” she says. “But I’ve done five movies with Bill, so I know I can have those discussions easily with him.” 

Another sequence in the film features a dream closet, which Barrett dressed with a combination of designer looks and pieces from the archives of Sony Pictures, the original distributor of the Charlie’s Angels TV series that ran from 1976 to 1981. “Once all the blocking was done, we went in and placed everything knowing where the camera was going to be,” Barrett says. “Things were definitely included for the storytelling, and we wanted it to be a slow reveal, so people could really take it in, much the same way each character does when she enters the scene. There are some Easter eggs in that closet; different people will see different things that will relate to them.” 

Several cameos in the film also play into that idea, with appearances from those including Ronda Rousey, Danica Patrick, Laverne Cox and Aly Raisman, as well as Jaclyn Smith, who reprises her role as Angel Kelly Garrett from the original TV series. “Ronda Rousey was pretty incredible,” Barrett says. “Our cameos pretty much kept every woman within her wheelhouse. The end credits are also among the really fun moments, because that’s where you see a bunch of women from different time periods become part of the narrative. And Jaclyn Smith is such a powerhouse — we went to meet her and fit her, and she was everything that the movie is trying to encourage in women in what they can achieve.” 

That inspiration is ultimately at the heart of Charlie’s Angels, and another reason Barrett signed on, she says. “There’s a broader philosophy about the film, that all women and young girls have the potential to be an Angel in the best possible way,” she adds. “There are many types of heroic situations, and in the film, you see Kristen contributing heroics in high heels and a minidress, while Ella does it in a waitress uniform. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing; you can have a job as an Angel.”