(Note: This page is ‘still in progress’, more to come!)
November 1, 2011 ~ As far back as I can remember (probably from the age of seven) I was completely fascinated with movie wardrobes, the ‘costumes’ that the actors wore to transform them into the characters they were playing. I was also captivated by the period hairstyles, make-up and all of the specific details involved with creating the ‘Look’ for a film. I began this page back in March of 2010 long before Water for Elephants began filming because I was excited to explore the time period in which the film was set. I was able to compile a few details, (check out the posts below) but I had to put the page on ‘hold’ once filming began because keeping up with the day to day filming news was overwhelming. Water for Elephants was released in theaters (in the USA) on April 22nd 2011 and the DVD/Blu-Ray is released today. Now with the benefit of hindsight, time and WFE costume designer Jacqueline West’s gorgeous wardrobe sketches and interviews I am now able to add to this page.
ICG (The International Cinematographers Guild) published this excellent article featuring Jacqueline West. I’ve included the parts specifically involving Water for Elephants (click here to read the entire article) Quote: “Nominated for costume design Oscars for her work on Quills and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Jacqueline West came to her love of fashion from her earliest days in San Francisco, where she grew up with a mannequin in her bedroom and Vogue magazines on the coffee table because her mother was a fashion designer. West followed her mother’s footsteps into fashion design, transitioning only to costumes when director Philip Kaufman asked her to be a creative consultant on Henry & June. West then later served as costume designer for Kaufman’s subsequent films, Rising Sun and Quills. She says she particularly loves the research end of her job – unearthing original sources to help capture the rich details required of a period piece, as West did for this month’s cover story, Water For Elephants. Ted Elrick talked to West about her 1930s-era designs for the film and found out that mom still knows best. “I continue to follow my mother’s advice,” West relayed. “Find the fabric first. The fabric dictates the design.”
ICG: The period circus theme of Water for Elephants must have presented many interesting opportunities. Jacqueline West: It did, because it’s a certain aspect of the 1930s where there isn’t much research to look to. There are a couple of books that were done by photographers at the time, but they were of the circus at rest rather than the circus performing. It was definitely a challenge, and a lot of the time you have to rely on your own imagination. Of course, the source material for the film (Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel) was so rich it was easy to pull descriptions from there. [Director] Francis Lawrence has such an incredible eye. It was a great collaboration with him because he really had a definite look in mind for the movie. It wasn’t Ringling Brothers. It was a poor, rag-tag circus that had gleaned its talent from other circuses that had gone under.
How did you become involved in the project? [Production Designer] Jack Fisk called me. I had worked with him on [director] Terence Malick’s films, and Jack said, “You have got to do this movie.” So I started reading a lot about the circus in the 1930s and looking at many pictures — the Kelty book (Step Right This Way, a collection of circus photographs from the ’20s through ’40s by Edward J. Kelty) was amazing, and a book I already owned. I had bought it years before for the photos. I guess we’re all fascinated by the circus, right from our childhood. I shared it with Jack and then met with Francis, and he had a book of research, and I brought a big folder of images that I thought would interest him. We had so many of the same images in both our books; it was really interesting that we were on the same page from the beginning. Also the way that Rodrigo (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC) shot the film matches the look of Depression-era America. Though it was hard times, it really made people bond together in the most sincere and intimate way. Rodrigo’s work is just beautiful. He is brilliant. I worked with him before on State of Play.
Was your partnership with him different because of the different time period of the film? The collaboration is still there, even though it’s an entirely different theme and look. You have to understand that Rodrigo is very easy going and giving. So I’d say I worked with Rodrigo more through Francis, who had the overall look he wanted everyone to achieve. For example, Francis would pick the clothes and costumes he loved, and since Rodrigo and Francis were so on the same page, I had the sense that anything Francis picked was okay to shoot on. Also, Rodrigo knew Jack and I were working closely, so I wasn’t going to saddle [Rodrigo’s camera] with a beige shirt against the beige tent!
Do all the prior working relationships help speed up the collaboration? Francis drew up a team that had all worked together before, and that’s very helpful. Jack [Fisk] and I have done about six movies together, and it’s to the point where we almost don’t have to speak to be on the same page; we trust each other so much. I know my costumes will work on his sets and vice versa. It’s a high compliment when he tells me that he doesn’t have to worry about the costumes when we work together. I feel exactly the same way about him.
Speaking of Terrence Malick, one of the things I loved about The New World was that the costumes were so dirty. The actors didn’t look like they were doing a reenactment for a museum celebration. That’s what I worry about in so many period films; that it doesn’t look like a reenactment. We made everything for The New World so we could age it, because people had one only outfit and there were no dry cleaners. A lot of the clothes were wool so they didn’t wash them because they would shrink. The actors would just live in them forever without cleaning them. People smelled, but then everybody smelled, so nobody really commented on it!
You have the same issue in Water for Elephants with the Depression. Exactly.
So their costumes were not pristine? [Laughs] Oh, no, trust me, they’re very lived in.
How much of the costuming was genuines (actual clothes from the period) and how much did you have to create? I’d say most of the backgrounds were genuines. They were called “rubes” in the circus world at that time. They’re the circus-goers, the actual audience members, and we had a wide range of “rubes” because the circus moves from the Dust Bowl region to New York City. The circuses get more up-market, but we still had to keep the period in mind and that people who went to the circus weren’t the richest in the town. So you see a progression [in the costuming palette] from very poor housedresses and overalls, to linen suits. And we backdated it all, because it’s 1930, right at the start of the [Depression] when people weren’t buying new clothes. It’s a subliminal thing. As for the circus performers and the clowns, we had to make those clothes because you just don’t go to a costume house and find 1930s circus clothes intact! Once in a while we’d find an original piece and integrate it. Also, we had core clowns and we’d change them to look a little different with makeup, hair and outfits to appear like we had more clowns than we really did. But most all of the costumes in the circus world were made. Reese (Witherspoon), Christoph Waltz, Robert Pattinson, all their costumes were made. I did find some genuine World War I boots for Robert.
Was it difficult getting period fabric, or fabric that is comparable to the period? We had some fabric made. The Japanese are making some incredible Depression-era clothing, so you can find replicas of Depression-era cloth for work clothes for the roustabouts the guys who put the tents up and do a lot of the work with the menagerie. We had to make the roustabout clothing because we had to trash it and you can’t really trash costume house clothing. We made the whole (Big Top Band uniforms) band in blue coats and white britches. It was an undertaking.
What aspect of Water for Elephants was the most fun for you? I’d say the circus performers, because there wasn’t a lot of research material and I could let my imagination take flight. Of those, the most challenging were the beaded performance costumes I made for Reese’s character. The ’30s style of beading is a lost art. There are some brilliant women beading, but you have to search them out. The challenge was to make it look like the 1930s, and not a costume made today for Las Vegas.
Where do you find people with such specific skills? I found this woman from Holland who is in her 70s. She had a real feeling for the period, as she’d learned from her mother, who’d been a famous beader in the 1930s. The beading gave me a lot of headaches, but it was a fun challenge. It’s satisfying when you figure something out that is daunting at first.
How much time did you have to get the costumes together before principal photography? We had 12 weeks’ prep, but I had to get Reese’s costumes ready before that for camera tests. That included all of her evening gowns, which were the next fun things after the circus costumes. I think the 1930s are my favorite period for gowns and costumes. I grew up watching all those classic films with Jean Harlow and Constance Bennett. Those old movies give me such inspiration.
I created the photo montage above as an illustrative comparison to punctuate Jacqueline’s references to her, Francis’ and Reese’s collaborative effort with regard to creating ‘Marlena’ for WFE film as she has quite a different ‘look’ and ‘back story’ than Sara Gruen’s Marlena. Both Francis and Jacqueline drew inspiration from 1930’s film legends Carole Lombard (top photo), Jean Harlow (middle photo) and Constance Bennett (bottom photo)… They did a fantastic job of incorporating all of the lovely actresses’ ‘look’ into transforming Reese into Marlena…
April 19, 2010 ~ As we continue to explore the time period in which Water for Elephants is set our focus turns to the subject of early 1930’s hair styles and make-up. Beginning with the Ladies, women’s hairstyles were mostly chin length and generally quite close to the head with deep set finger waves either parted in the center or off to one side. Variations included the popular ‘bob’ which had softer waves and displayed more volume. Pale complexions were the rage and rouge, lipstick, and eyeshadow were used to brighten faces and eyebrows were plucked into thin expressive arches. In the photo above Cherlize Theron’s character in The Legend of Bagger Vance set in 1931 is a perfect example of authentic early 1930’s hair and make-up. Reese, in the image to the left, is channeling the early 1930’s in this publicity photo giving us a glimpse of what Marlena may look like in Water for Elephants. At the moment Reese has very long hair, which was not the style then, so she will probably wear a wig or she may even cut her own hair. Time will tell once filming starts. Now on to the Gentlemen, men kept their hair clipped close around their ears, quite short, and sometimes parted and slicked back on top. It would be unheard of for men to have long hair in the early thirties. When men would go to their favorite barber, they would also get a shave and a shoe shine that was very typical for that time period. In the photo to the right is another character from The Legend or Bagger Vance wearing a very typical early 1930’s men’s hairstyle, short, parted and slicked back. Also note that rarely would you see any gentlemen wear a beard during this time, however mustaches were very much in style. For the most part everyone was clean shaven with no stubble. At the beginning of Water for Elephants Jacob is a Veterinary Student at Cornell University and would have had a well groomed hairstyle much like the character above. Rob’s hairstyle in the image left is very close to what I image Jacob to look like after joining the Benzini Brother’s Circus. His hair is a bit disheveled and unkempt, which would be the case since Jacob had little time or the inclination to worry about what he looked like. Traveling circus folk had no sinks or bathtubs and any washing up, shaving, etc. would have been done with a bucket of water, sometimes shared between two people. Since Jacob wasn’t able to shave everyday he’ll probably be sporting some occasional stubble. So, that’s my take on what we can expect Water for Elephant’s circus world, circa 1931, to look like hairstyle/make-up-wise. More to come, next I will be exploring women’s fashions and more details on the over all look of that time period.
March 31, 2010 – Water for Elephants is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, specifically 1931. Going with this knowledge it is presumed that the film will stay true to the historical period and give us authentic costumes and set design. I became curious about what the ‘look’ of the film might be so I began researching that time period. I mainly wanted to know how people dressed back then and going on what I learned I began to piece together a possible wardrobe for the characters. I started with Jacob since he is the protagonist of the story. We first meet 23 year old Jacob (Rob’s character) as he is about to take his final exams in Veterinary Sciences at Cornell University. Since his father, a Veterinarian as well, is barely making ends meet and unbeknownst to Jacob has mortgaged their home to pay for his university tuition I would suspect that Jacob’s college wardrobe is very simple and probably a few years old. Motoring style caps were quite popular at that time, so it would be appropriate for Jacob to wear one. Also, young men attending university usually wore collared shirts with ties and a sweater vest tucked into slacks that were wide legged and cuffed.
Jacob’s world abruptly changes when he loses his parents and is faced with his unknown future. Jacob is made aware of the fact that his father is broke and that his parent’s home is in foreclosure and all of their possessions are being sold to pay their debts. Jacob is so distraught over his parent’s death that he walks away, and keeps on walking. He’s still dressed in his black suit, his only possession… Jacob basically leaves his past behind with nothing but the clothes on his back when he hops aboard the circus train that carries him to his destiny…
When Jacob accepts his new life as the circus’ Veterinarian he begins to adapt to the day to day life surrounding the circus and his ‘wardrobe’ basically consists of whatever can be stolen from the wash lines of the unsuspecting local townsfolk. Jacob has no money and is, no doubt, grateful for whatever he’s given. His clothes are often dirty and have to be worn for days upon days.