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For costume designer Jennifer Johnson, part of the research for Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya led her to eBay, where she found and purchased an archive of tabloid clippings from an obsessed fan. That turned out to be “the most enlightening research that I discovered because it had a lot of family photos in it,” says Johnson, whose investigation into Harding’s ice skating involved searching Getty Images and watching old footage uploaded by friends, family and news organizations over the years on YouTube. “You can see these photos that had not been widely published of Tonya as a child with her mom and dad, and some of the homemade costumes her mother had made for her.”
The disgraced Olympic ice skater’s life and career takes center stage in Craig Gillespie’s dark comedy, starring Margot Robbie as a talented and troubled Harding; Sebastian Stan as her abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly; and Allison Janney as her cold-hearted mother, LaVona Golden. It’s one of two awards contenders (Battle of the Sexes being the other) to spotlight epic sports showdowns — and historical sportswear worn by female athletes who needed to score points for style as well as substance.
An unforgettable moment in Harding’s career captured in the film is the 1991 Nationals in Minneapolis, Minn., where she conquers a triple axel in a garish homemade turquoise costume.
“The fit of it is really important because the spandex at the time did not stretch in several different ways. It’s sort of baggy along the arms, which is done very intentionally,” says Johnson of re-creating the ill-fitting uniform. “It’s not perfect, though it’s quite well made when you look at photos of the original. It doesn’t have the sleekness that maybe some of the other skaters have.”
Johnson, who worked with L.A.-based costume house Muto-Little in crafting the film’s ice-skating ensembles, added her own spin to the piece with a leaf skirt that was lined with silver “so when she spun, you could sense a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll.”
In contrast, the burgundy look Harding wears to the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway, represents how far she’d come in the sport — that is before her career falls apart after the infamous attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. This costume “symbolizes, at this point, she has sponsorship and money,” recalls Johnson. “It’s really well made when you look at the images of that event. In juxtaposition to the ’91 costume, now you can see there’s expertise in tailoring going on.”
Another possible best picture nominee, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘ Battle of the Sexes, captures the famous 1973 tennis match of the same name between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell) and 29-year-old tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone).
Unlike Johnson, who did not get the chance to meet with real-life Harding to consult on her film’s wardrobe, Battle costume designer Mary Zophres not only met King, but received approval from the champ herself about the iconic look from the epic matchup that helped raise the profile and popularity of women’s tennis.
“She came and visited during prep, which was really key for us because we were really trying to replicate that dress in the Battle,” recalls Zophres, who notes that famed British tennis couturier Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) had originally designed another dress for King, but she felt it was too scratchy so she ended up wearing the second option, a mint green and light blue dress with rhinestones and sequin stitching for extra pizazz. “She was, like, ‘You nailed it. To hear Billie Jean say that was a big thrill for me.” Talk about a grand slam.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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