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Phantom Thread’s Oscar-winning costume designer on how to tell stories with couture

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is a masterclass in creating character with design

Photo by Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

There’s a common theme among the films that were nominated for Best Costume Design at this year’s Academy Awards. You won’t find any superhero costumes or exotic space opera designs. Instead, movies like Beauty and the Beast, The Darkest Hour, and The Shape of Water focus on traditional period designs, using the art of costuming to establish their highly specific worlds and offer insight into their characters.

In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which took home the award Sunday evening, the creative challenge goes a step further. The story of the strange relationship between couture designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his latest young muse Alma (Vicky Krieps), Phantom Thread is set in the world of 1950s London fashion itself, with the movie lingering over the way garments are designed, draped, fitted, and sewn. But it’s also a movie where the inner life of its lead character is expressed through the dresses he designs, giving costume designer Mark Bridges the opportunity to not just create beautiful garments, but to contribute to shaping Woodcock’s character through his creations. I sat down with Bridges to talk about his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, the inspirations behind the film’s designs and characters, and how pulling off the film’s lush looks required leaving modern approaches behind and embracing the techniques the characters would have used themselves.

You’ve worked with Paul Thomas Anderson going back to Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, and together, you’ve recreated some very specific eras and looks. But in a lot of ways, Phantom Thread is about garment design itself. What was his initial pitch to you like?

He approached it in a really roundabout way, like, “Do you know who [fashion designer] Charles James is?” I think that early on, he was fascinated with that character. That man. His work. And then I think as he did more research, Cristóbal Balenciaga was really interesting, and [Christian] Dior was interesting, and Jacques Fath was interesting. And so he gleaned bits about them, and it created its own Reynolds Woodcock kind of thing.

But [his pitch] was probably something as casual and flip as like, “Uh, you want to do a movie about ’50s couture?” I’m just like, “Uh, okay. Sure.” I was probably as excited when he approached me about, “Want to do a movie about 1911 oil derricks in Texas?” ’Cause you always know it’s going to be cool and exciting and not-usual. And then we’ve done The Master, which had its own trippy quality, too, and then Inherent Vice — triple trip. So I always look forward to his initial pitch.

A lot of the garments you designed in the film are supposed to have been created by Reynolds Woodcock. They’re meant to express who he is, and what he cares about. Did that change your approach?

Well, I think that for the characters themselves, [approaching it from the perspective of] the storytelling and who they are in “the real world” is the usual way I’d do it. Just try to tell their story and how their outside reflects their inside. Especially Alma early on, when she’s sort of the fisherman’s daughter, and charting that progress: country clothes, and city clothes, and trying to fit in with the women in the [Woodcock] workroom and things. I think that where it was a little different was that to do the House of Woodcock [collection], you kind of had to go into somebody else’s mindset, or there were parameters about what the look of the House of Woodcock was, and make choices along those lines. Still storytelling, but channeling another designer’s sensibility, and always keeping in mind that time and place.

So that’s where that got a little different. Paul wanted a spring collection for the fashion show [sequence]. There’s a kind of richness and solemnity and historical references and things to the Woodcock label, so how do you make a spring collection? You know it’s not going to be pastel florals and chiffons, like they would have maybe been doing in France. It’s going to stay English, with a heavy dose of lace and using woolens even for springtime.

And then there’s personal expression in the fashion show as well. Something Alma wears references something she wore earlier in the story. And so in a very subtle way, we see how she has come into his life and affected his life as well as his work.

Aside from the design, the film also looks at the process of actually making a garment. The Woodcock shop has this team of women who are meticulous craftspeople. Were there techniques you had to go back to when creating the garments for this film? How has manufacturing these kinds of clothes changed with the advent of newer technologies?

We were lucky enough to do research and examine the real garments at the Victoria and Albert Museum [in London] and touch them and look at them and take our cutter in there and really see that a lot of these fabrics were flat-lined with silk organza to give them a little more body, or how they did the inner construction, or how the finishing was on all the seams and things. Or a technique on how they did certain embroidery that I would then later use in one of the costumes on the film. So we tried as best as possible to actually do it like that. So you get a result that was accurate and believable.

Luckily, we had a cutter [the artist that translates the designer’s sketches into patterns, and then garments] who came from a couture background. Her mother worked in couture. She was an amazing cutter, and much to her excitement — as well as exhaustion level — she really tried to do it for us, and deliver us a truly couture garment every time. I have pictures of six people sewing on one train at the same time because [the dress was needed] the next day. We were making garments all the way through the shoot, right to the very end. It was a constant state of creating and fitting and finishing.

Photo by Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Had you had the opportunity to use any of these techniques before?

No, I really had not done these kinds of gowns, and you’re just always trying to do something authentic. If I was going to do Renaissance Germany or something, I’d want to research how the doublets were made, and how they did slashing, and how they finished the thing. It’s the same thing whether it’s 1650 or 1950. We’re going to try to re-create it as closely as possible. So you get a real sense of reality. I think that was key, certainly for Daniel. Creating that world, and feeling real in that world. And Paul is a real stickler for having a real world, too, that doesn’t feel fake or movie-ish.

Daniel Day-Lewis has to actually drape a gown in this movie, and he’s known for being intensely hands-on in his preparation. How closely did you work with him when it came to the craft, and how deep did he go?

He worked with a guy in New York to learn to drape and even got to a point where he made a garment for his wife, which was a copy from a Balenciaga day dress. And it was good enough that she’s worn it out, so it was a wearable, lovely garment. So he certainly came to it doing his homework. And then it was a kind of a world that he knew, certainly sartorially. He had a father who had things made at Anderson & Sheppard; recalled what his grandfather would wear, like, “my grandfather would always wear gray flannels” or whatever. So we incorporated all those personal reminiscences, and even used Anderson & Sheppard on Savile Row to make his clothes, and had his shoes made at Cleverley in The Royal Arcade. So there was an authenticity that I think helped him be Reynolds Woodcock. I was happy to be guided through that, and always was very considerate and amiable about us consulting about it, but I also have to make film-worthy clothes.

And he has the pink socks, which were Daniel’s idea. I think he knew people who were sort of British eccentrics or artists, and then in that kind of staid world, to have some kind of twist or individuality speaks such volumes. I was fine with it because I thought, “Of course if it works for his head, I’m great with it.” Because I’m there to facilitate an actor’s performance. And taste-wise, it’s just another rich dimension of telling that story.

What makes a garment “film-worthy”?

Things that photograph well. There are patterns or textures that don’t read well. We tried not to use black too much. It just doesn’t photograph that well, even though this particular film stock and the way it’s processed has really lush blacks. Of course, we had Daniel’s tuxedo and things like that.

If I did use black, it had a kick to it or a sheen. It’s choices like that, that are conscious and [part of the] checklist of what a costume has to be: relative to the character, relative to the scene, being able to be made in time, lovely to look at, and then also photograph well.

There’s a point made in the film about designers sewing messages or other items into the lining of their garments. Was that a real historical tradition?

I think that during Paul’s research, he read somewhere that someone had done it. It’s not anything I’d heard about, but Paul’s really… I swear, besides actually shooting the film, his favorite thing [is research]. He would research for years. He just loves the scholarly aspect of it all, and I think the deeper he digs, the more ideas he gets. So I think that was part of his reading about seamstresses. There’s a mystical quality to all the unseen hands who work on some of these elaborate [Charles Frederick] Worth gowns because it was all done by hand. And the passementerie and the embroidery and the beading and all this stuff. Literally 30 people could have worked on one gown, and the idea that their spirit is in the garment is kind of the vibe of Phantom Thread. I think he must have seen that a step further is putting a talisman in a garment like that.