How 'Lady Bird's' Saoirse Ronan Tells Her Story Through Thrift-Store Clothing

Lady Bird Still Saoirse Ronan - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of A24

Costume designer April Napier shares how the lead character expresses her individuality through clothing in Greta Gerwig's directorial debut.

If you haven't heard much about coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird (yet), you may want to become familiar with what is being considered a best picture frontrunner for next year's Oscars.

Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the semiautobiographical film, which centers on Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as the titular young woman trying to navigate her senior year at a Catholic girls' high school in Sacramento, California, in 2002. The movie also stars Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird's highly opinionated mom, as well as Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges and Call Me By Your Name's Timothee Chalamet.

Lady Bird, which Ronan's character points out in the film is her name because "it's given to me, by me," stands out from her peers with a fierce individuality reflected in the clothes she wears. "It's wide open with Lady Bird, specifically because she's such an individual that she can pull from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, all of it," says costume designer April Napier. 

Napier shares that she worked to contrast Lady Bird's identity "with the fabric of what was going on" in fashion at the time. The character wears a number of vintage pieces instead of the Abercrombie & Fitch and Juicy Couture track suits that dominated the early 2000s, for example ("It was such an awful time in terms of what people were wearing," the costume designer notes).

Napier discusses more about her work on Lady Bird with The Hollywood Reporter, below.

Where did you begin with your research?

I had many dialogues with Greta because it is kind of Greta's story and she had a plethora of photos and her yearbook for the general look. She always describes Sacramento as the "Midwest of California," so it's always a little behind. Additionally, when you're dealing with 2002, it's post 9/11 and it's that weird time where people are just starting to use the internet. I also did a lot of visual references from books and magazines.

Lady Bird's family doesn't come from a place with a lot of wealth, so she's often going thrifting for her clothes.

There's that scene when she and her mom are at the thrift store looking for a Thanksgiving dress and they found that '50s cream-color lace dress, which I think at that period, the development of her, she's trying to appeal to Danny's [Lucas Hedges] family, which is more of a classic Kennedy family. She puts on pearls, because she's trying to fit into that.

And then as she becomes more interested in Timothée's [Chalamet] character, then she becomes a little bit more alternative. Then she wears that red lace '50s dress for the prom, as opposed to all the other people who are wearing these awful late '90s/early 2000s prom dresses. That was from Palace Costume. We embellished it with a little more rhinestone because she'd be a little flashier. Greta was seeing her in a brighter color at that point, because she's really in her element. She's doing what she wants to do.

Where did you go thrifting for the film?

I mostly did costume houses, actually. We did a little thrifting for Lady Bird, specifically, but it was mostly from costume houses, because again, she could be from any era. I went to Palace Costume, Warner Bros., Universal.

One outfit that stood out was when she was auditioning for the musical. Why pick that particular look?

That was from the Universal [Studios lot] costume house, and I was trying to find something that I thought she would think is an interesting piece. It's also that scene when the father says, "Lady Bird, is that your given name?" And she says, "Yes, it was given to me. It's the name I gave myself." She's declaring her independence, so she's thinking what would be theatrical. I thought just graphically, it was just so unusual and perfect for her, because everyone else is auditioning in their uniforms. It was a 1970s knit dress. She's like, "I'm onstage, I'm putting on lipstick, I'm putting on my special costume. I'm making my own song."

There's also that cowboy look she wears to the school dance.

That's an interesting one, because again, she's her own person and she always has a sense of identity. That's a 1940s/'50s gabardine embroidered embellished piece. There was a designer in the '50s called Nudie — he was the rhinestone cowboy designer. So we were looking for something like that, which would be her idea. She's not going to wear a plaid shirt or a dress. She could have found it in a thrift store in Sacramento. It separates her from Odeya [Rush's character Jenna Walton] and her weird crew that are wearing tanks they had printed and Beanie [Feldstein's Julie Steffans] in her sweet little red dress, which came from a flea market.

Did you do the shopping in Los Angeles or Sacramento?

We did it all here [in L.A.], because we shot most of it here. We just shot the last week for exteriors in Sacramento.

There's Lady Bird's Catholic school uniform, which is less polished than some of her classmates. Was that intentional to set her apart?

Yeah, Greta went to Catholic school, so she said even though they had uniforms, the only way to proclaim your identity is through the accessories. So, for instance, Lady Bird wears Mary Jane Doc Martens and a lot of patterned socks. She always has on her necklaces and bracelets. She can wear it in a tomboy way because she's much more cool and comfortable in her outfit, whereas Beanie is more square and sweet. We put her in Skechers, which I never thought I would ever use in my entire life, but they were good for Beanie. Then there's Jenna, who wears her stuff much tighter and she rolls up her skirt to be a little sexier, and she wears knee socks and loafers. Lady Bird is much more punk rock throughout the entire time in the film.

In the opening scene, she's in a blue collared shirt. Why open the film with that?

That is, I think, specifically of that era. It's more of that alternative thing, too. We looked at some old Delia's catalogs to see what they would have, and I referenced a lot of films of that era.

When Lady Bird finally makes it to New York, she feels much more like herself. Tell us about her wardrobe after the move.

She's finally made the jump to get out of that small farm town. The shirt and jacket were from a costume house, and the jeans she wears are from Etsy. They were short and cropped, they were wider and had a mid-rise. It was thrift-store stuff, but she's finding a place where she knows she can be comfortable with herself. She has the freedom to wear whatever she wants.