Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with costume designer Mary Zophres about her beautiful work in Hail Caesar. Mary's work can also be seen in The Big Lebowski, True Grit and Catch Me If You Can to name a few. After watching Hail Caesar, which is now available on Blu-Ray/DVD. I had some questions about the fabulous costumes and the actors who wear them and how to create an authentic look on a budget.
Brittany: In previous interviews, you've spoken a lot about how a studio's costume design nowadays is so much different from that of the 40s and 50s. In what ways is a modern costume designers job different from those in the 40s and 50s?
Mary: Well I think one of the big differences is because up until the early 50s, people were contracted to a studio so you were assigned a film. And on that same token, you had access to the staff that could work for you. There are photographs of 20-30 sewing machines set up with people with multitudes of talent, different levels of talent being able to sew the garments that you had designed. And rolls and rolls of fabric. And access to using the fabric that you wanted for a particular suit or a particular dress. And it never wrapped, it never shut down and the people were on on payroll. So, you finished one film and you might turn around the next day and start another because you were on contract and you probably have a month's vacation during the whole year. They were not freelance like we are today. I just finished a film on Friday and I don't know exactly what my next job will be! Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't!
Brittany: That's so fascinating!
Mary: So nowadays, you find fewer and fewer people that are skilled in some of the techniques that they used. Tailoring has become that way too, its much harder to find someone that can do that kind of work. In the 50s, every time a man appeared in a suit or a tuxedo or shirt....anything, you know, they didn't shop for those, they made them all.
Brittany: That's amazing!
Mary: I know! I know, That concept alone is just....In modern film you either rent a costume or you make it and sometimes you can go to a vintage store and buy it but otherwise, with contemporary movies, often times you shop it! And now, we're to the point where you don't even walk into a brick and mortar, a lot of times, you're ordering online so, it's just a different animal! Also, I'm not saying it was better then, it's just different. We also have moved through a time where films were idealized and it was pretty rare when you found a film that was about reality. In the 70s that became the vogue of how to make a film, to make it more realistic. And now we have both, its like the best of both worlds, we have films that are idealized, we have films that are gritty, we have films that are futuristic, that look like another time period so its a whole different system now. But, the whole industry has shifted, its not just the costume department.
Brittany: I wear vintage clothes every single day and a lot of my readers do too. You know, I have to be careful to not wear the rayon dress to clean the bathroom! So, my question is: I read that with Josh Brolin's suit, you found an original and you tried to replicate it but you loved the original so you stuck with the authentic garment for his suit, is that correct?
Mary: Yes, we did, that's correct!
Brittany: So, do you find it difficult to fit modern actors in vintage garments and are they nervous about wearing such an old garment because if you have to wear it for several weeks for shooting, does he worry about it getting ruined or rained on or....?
Mary: Well, we all made the decision...because we had a replica...we found vintage fabric at Western Costume. They had some, very very few, but they still had some and I found a piece of vintage suiting and we made a suit for Josh but it wasn't quite the same and it was a little bit more of a vivid plaid. So, our tailor on Hail Caesar made sure that all of the seams were intact and there was nothing that looked like it was going to come apart. To be honest with you, suits from the 1940s are made to last! And as you know, since you're a purveyor of vintage wear, which I am myself. But look at the advertising "built to last" was what the motto was! They weren't trying to get you to buy a new suit every month like we are now. You could own that suit for 20 years and wear it every day and it would still last. The way the fabric was woven, the way it was stitched, everything about it was made to last. Once we made sure all of the seams were intact, it was okay. Oh and was in a private collection at Western Costume so the temperature was right. Before that, it had come from Connie Norris's collection and you know, her clothing was not rented over and over again and it was climate controlled so it was very well taken care of and Katie, who runs the private collection at Western Costume kept it in an air conditioned car with padded hangers and was kept in very good condition so, I don't think Josh was nervous, we weren't worried about it, once we gave it a once over and everything was good. Once we saw something start to go on the suit, we took it to our tailor on the show and we'd just make small repairs if we needed to. But, I guarantee that suits today will not be around 70 years from now.
Yes, absolutely! I could buy a cheap outfit from Target and it wont last me any time at all, compared to some of my 40s dresses, which have been around forever and I wear over and over again.
Mary: Yeah, now we're into disposable clothes, which, I heard the other day, the clothes are just filling landfills from people throwing them away and there's a whole new business of recycling clothes. Like, even if your clothes has a hole in it, don't throw it away, take it to Goodwill and they'll recycle it, otherwise we're going to have landfills full of $10 tee shirts and $20 jeans and that's not a good thing for our planet. But that was part of your incentive to buy back then because you're going to buy one suit and it was going to last you a really long time. But Josh wasn't nervous about it, it was partly his choice and he wanted it.
Brittany: Yes, I loved that suit! I read the interviews about it but when I saw the movie I was like Oh yeah, it's fantastic, I mean, he had to go with it! So, I wanted to talk about Scarlett's outfit, that was my favorite scene and I read that you used the same pool that Esther Williams used at MGM and I thought that was so cool! So, I wanted to hear more about her mermaid suit and those fabulous swimsuits. I read also that you didn't have the time to test the fabrics underwater on set, you had to test in an outdoor pool but I wanted to know more about the beading and everything.
Mary: Yes the question was, would we mould it and make it out of latex or would we make it out of a beaded fabric and I felt pretty strongly that we should do it out of fabric. It just felt more like a vintage suit, they way Esther Williams' were done, they were made out of fabric that was beaded or sequined by hand. I've read that all of her stuff was made by hand so that's how we came upon this idea. We knew that the swim suits were going to be orange and yellow so it then was a process of elimination. The pool was going to be blue. So at one point, we thought about pink and then I decided to use this beautiful green and it would look great on her and really stand out and with her skin and be a graphic contrast to the swimmers. So we started with a fabric that had some beading on it and then we had beaders that work here in Los Angeles. There were 3 or 4 strands that were twisted and hand beaded to make the scale. And there were, maybe almost 1,000 scales on each outfit, it was a really crazy number! You know, It needed to pop and it needed to sparkle. It needed to have some of that old Hollywood glamour so that's how we decided to do it and it wasn't a place where you could take a short cut. Originally, we were only supposed to have one and in the end we ended up having to have four and that's how we kind of broke our budget because one of the most expensive things for this movie was making the mermaid costumes. And Scarlett has that great curvy hourglass figure.
Brittany: Yes, she looked spectacular and you're right, that color with her skin was beautiful. So, I wanted to talk about Tilda Swinton. Dressing her would be amazing, I love her figure and her bone structure and everything about her look and I really love all of her hats!
Yeah, everything for Tilda was made. A lot of it was based on original suits but we made everything for her. I wanted her to be very dramatic. Every time she enters one of her scenes, she kind of causes an interruption and that's why her clothes are more vivid in nature from the other characters in the film. We made all of her hats too. The gag is, we wanted the audience, the first time they see the two sisters to be confused like "What is this? didn't we just see her?" From the very first time you're introduced to both of them, we decided to do a hat with a feather going one way and then in the next scene, you see the sister with her feather going the other way. She has a suit with grays with yellow accent and the sister has a gray suit and green is the accent with that gigantic feather. It was so long, it didn't even fit into the frame of the camera. We wanted her to be very chic and like she buys a suit each season or maybe even two, very high fashion. She was in a very fitted, sculptured silhouette with very straight pencil skirts. We used the same silhouette for her skirts throughout. We used very big shoulders which was very popular in the late 40s and started to go out of vogue in the early 50s . But because Tilda is a middle aged woman, we felt we had the right look. You know, you found a look that works for you and you stay with it! It was all based on suits that we found from that time period that we adapted for Tilda. Tilda is almost 6 feet tall, she looks great in clothes. Some of the clothes that we found in that time period were too small for her and we wanted it to fit perfectly. And because of the gag of the twin sisters, I had to have something in just the right size, the right silhouette, the right colors with blocks of colors so we ended up making everything for her handbags, to her hats, suit, the gloves. The gloves are handmade and stitched with contrast stitching. Everything except for the shoes, the shoes are from Remix!
Brittany: Oh yes, we all love Remix!
Mary: Yeah me too! They have a pump that a very good copy of a 1940s shoe. Probably a 2-3 inch heel. There are a couple of changes that we made like adding a shoe clip but other wise she wore that. We spent a lot of money on everything else and I don't think we even saw her shoes in the film.
Brittany: I know, I was looking for them! I always do look for the shoes!
Mary: Yeah, I don't think we ever had a head to toe shot, so from the knee up, that was about it!
Brittany: Well I'll tell them you used Remix, we love them!
Mary: Yes we love them too and thank god for Remix!
Brittany: Okay one more question, You've commented in other interviews that you had a very tight budget and even sewed some of the things yourself. My readers are also putting together vintage looks on a budget so do you have any tips for them on putting together an accurate look on a shoestring budget?
Mary: I think you have to find the right vintage clothing store. Every vintage clothing store is owned by someone picking those clothes. My two favorite vintage clothing shops in Los Angeles are Playclothes on Magnolia in the valley and now down in Long Beach. And there's another one called Kaboom in long beach, its right next door to Meow. There's some vintage clothing stores where the prices are astronomical, I think. You have to find a reasonably priced one or even sometimes in small towns, the thrift stores, the salvation army has great pieces. If you don't know how to sew, find someone in your town who knows how to sew. So many vintage pieces need a little bit of tailoring so make it fit your body, that's what will make you look like a million bucks, if you can make something inexpensive work for you like that.
Thank you to Mary for her wonderful interview and pointing us vintage loving girls in the right direction! Check out Hail Caesar on Blu-Ray/DVD to see Mary's exquisite vintage designs!