'Late Night' Costume Designer Breaks Down Emma Thompson's Power Pantsuits

Updated-Late Night Costume Design-Emma Thompson-Publicity-Split-H 2019
Amazon Studios; Mitchell Travers

"A character with Katherine's fight and tenacity would say, 'You know what, if it's only going to be the boys, then I'm going to show them how to do it,'" Mitchell Travers says of the trailblazing comedian character.

Despite about 30 costume changes, the only time viewers see Emma Thompson in a gown in Late Night is in the first scene. Her character, comedian Katherine Newbury, is accepting an award for her decades-long career as a late-night host while wearing a metallic Talbot Runhof dress to mark the occasion.

Yet soon after leaving the stage, Katherine pulls off her Manolo Blahniks and complains about the qualms of high heels. For the rest of the film, written by Mindy Kaling, Katherine only rocks power pantsuits (sometimes paired with chic Stella McCartney sneakers) to establish the aesthetic of a female late-night host on network TV — without any real-life examples on which to base her look.

Costume designer Mitchell Travers tells The Hollywood Reporter that her one and only gown was a very conscious choice, made when trying to decide what a female comedy icon would look like on a red carpet. They used the opportunity to show how "uncomfortable" it is for women.

"I felt like it was a nice break for us to understand the differences that men and women have to face on the red carpet," he says. "For a woman, she's expected to have the latest and greatest gown. It should be feathered, beaded; she should wear Spanx; she should have cleavage."

For the rest of Late Night — about Katherine’s desperate attempts to remain relevant on air by hiring a lone female writer Molly (Kaling) and avoid being kicked off her show — Travers and the creative team knew suits would be Katherine's staple.

Kaling first approached Travers while starring on the 2018 film Ocean's Eight (he was an associate costume designer) to let him know about a project she was working on, possibly with Thompson. "She was saying, 'I've written this woman who is kind of this boss in a suit all the time. Do you think that's possible? Do you think she could wear that?'" Travers says. "I was like, 'Oh absolutely. I think Emma would be incredible in suiting.'"

Travers dove into research of outfits by all the male late-night hosts — from Jay Leno and David Letterman to Graham Norton — to look at their fabrics, their proportions, how frequently they re-wear suits and whether they go designer or bespoke. He also considered to what extent he wanted to feel the presence of a stylist the network would have hired for Katherine.

"I did a lot of thinking about a woman who was coming up through the ranks at a time when it was a boys' club," explains Travers, who was the costume designer of Eighth Grade (2018) and will next dress In the Heights (2020). "It's weird to not really have a go-to or a person you can look toward for style cues.… A character with Katherine's fight and tenacity would say, 'You know what, if it's only going to be the boys, then I'm going to show them how to do it. I'm going to put my spin on it and take ownership of it.'"

That translated into a fully suited character, who starts out reminiscent of many male hosts with a more limited closet — perhaps a navy pinstripe suit — but begins experimenting with more textures and cuts. She fits in with the boys but stands out by use of color, geometric jewelry, designer sneakers and yes, a bit of cleavage.

Norton inspired that carefree, whimsical and risky feel, which is something Katherine would have embraced as she’s trying to save her show by any means necessary. 

"I used those influences toward the end of the film when Katherine's own relationship with clothes kind of mirrors where she's at in her life, where she's taking more chances, she's being more open to new ideas," Travers says. "When you are locked into suiting, the ultimate trick you have is color."

For example, Katherine is pressured into throwing a party at her home for the press and for her writers to gain publicity, after she’s avoided the media most of her career. The designer of choice: Brandon Maxwell, who dressed Lady Gaga in her four stunning looks at the 2019 Met Gala and took home Womenswear Designer of the Year at the CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday.

Wanting to really impress her guests, Katherine may have turned to a stylist and tried on six or seven looks, Travers figures, before choosing the red suit that features a cinched waist and low neckline to expose a black, lacy bustier top.

"A trick in my own work that I really like to do is almost the ability to see someone's collarbone or their pulse, I call it. Because, for me, it keeps them human, it keeps them vulnerable," he says.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure put on the character in that scene," he adds. "We wanted it to feel like a risk, and we wanted it to feel like surrendering to the unknown and for the first time, we really get a sense that this character is saying, 'I might not know how to do this, but I'm willing to accept help.'"

Then, as the team came up with the idea of suiting, the question became about shoes — would a woman who has wanted to play with menswear her whole life wear heels?

Travers says they considered maybe never seeing her in heels, but decided it felt a little restrictive to make such a blanket choice for the character. "There were times we wanted a bit more of a pointed energy, a bit more of a forced identity, so we would use heels in those moments," he says.

One such moment is a pivotal scene in which Katherine makes an apology and wears gold-toe Tibi heels with a Suitsupply tuxedo — also the only time she wears a tux in the film. It was the most challenging costume for Travers, who says, "It was a signal that she was putting on her best for her audience."

In other scenes, Katherine opts for sneakers — by Stella McCartney — to feel grounded, break traditional rules and show she doesn't take herself too seriously. And while high-end sneaks might be all over the runways in 2019, by Balenciaga, Chanel and Versace, among others, at the time they felt new and exciting, Travers says. In fact, a fashion blog posted a picture of Thompson in a suit with the footwear and wrote about how "obviously these are off-camera shoes. Someone this stylish would never wear sneakers with this ensemble," Travers says. "And I remember reading it and thinking, 'Just you wait.'"

He relied on other accessories like jewelry to signal a change in her mind-set, too. In the beginning, Katherine wears vintage Byzantine and Egyptians pieces that could very well belong in museums: "I love this cavalier way that she would throw them on with her suit." But she breaks up her strict rules about dressing and starts mixing in costume jewelry to show she can have fun in fashion.

And fun she has, with power pants by Racil, Suitsupply and Armani to complete her Late Night fashion show. And if viewers look closely, they'll notice the costuming comes full circle, as Katherine again pulls off her heels in one of the final scenes.

Late Night, acquired by Amazon Studios, opens in theaters Friday.