‘Babylon’ Costume Designer On The Film’s 1920s Looks: “Pure Old Hollywood Glamor.”
Damien Chazelle’s film Babylon is one of cinema’s greatest odes to Hollywood. It truly transports us back to the 1920s to see the roots of the film industry, in all its chaos. The film’s music, production design and costume design are all up for Oscar nominations.
Babylon’s costume designer Mary Zophres, who is nominated for the Oscar, worked with her team to create thousands of custom-made looks that give the film its authentic 1920s feel. She was inspired by old, vintage fabrics she came across, which she crafted into new outfits for the actors. Old Hollywood actors like Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong were key influences in crafting some of the film’s fashion.
Zophres walks through five key looks in the film, and breaks down the meaning behind each costume.
Jean Smart in Babylon: “The Hearst dress began with an impeccable large triangular panel of spectacular beaded souffle from the 1920s. I designed her column gown around that insert, out of a vintage piece of sage, mint silk charmeuse and adding hand beaded details to work with the hand beaded details of the vintage panel. The hat was Papal-inspired with hand-beaded trim to work with the dress. I also added the back detail of vintage beads that were reminiscent of the beads found in the vintage insert that tiered down sequentially down her back.”
Katherine Waterston in Babylon: “Her character is very east coast and sophisticated, wearing the latest in fashion. We are introduced to her character in 1929 or 1930, when women’s fashion was changing. At Jack’s party, she wears a pink silk velvet bias cut gown that shimmers beautifully with a matching silk velvet cape. My tailor shop exquisitely hand-stitched an incredible period detail along the neck and shoulders. For this scene, I used vintage silk charmeuse dresses on all the women all in hues of light golds, cremes, sage, coral and pink. I wanted the whole party to glow. Her character is also navigating in the west coast world and presenting herself as someone who can fit in or perhaps is superior. All her costumes, as with all the leads in the film, were handmade.”
Margot Robbie in Babylon: “The idea behind this costume is that it is one of the only costume moments for Nellie where she has been ‘curated’ or dressed by someone else, as Elinor was trying to reform her image. She is the most ‘covered’ we have ever seen her, literally strangled by a mock turtleneck gown, and bound by long sleeves. It is made from a duchess satin, and the amount of detailed handwork on the dress is almost suffocating her. There are 30 layers of gathered ruffles that were hand-sewn in a pattern from the bottom of the dress to her waistline, taking almost a hundred hours of handwork per dress. For the vomiting scene, we had to make three dresses. I also added an original vintage choker necklace, too.”
Li Jun Li in Babylon: “Lady Fay wears a tuxedo for her performance. It was definitely inspired by Marlene Dietrich, and the tailoring and fabric choice was tantamount. Li Jun Li is incredibly poised and has a dancer background. Her movement in the dance was almost feline to me, and I wanted the tailoring to show every move she made. This outfit is made out of a Barathea wool from England with a silk faille lapel. Her top hat is an original 19th century top hat that my specialty costumer, Deborah Embrassino, refurbished. Her gloves were handmade by glovemaker Dorothy Gaspar, and I found a beautiful original pair of black-and-white silk faille suspenders that had to be refurbished that I absolutely loved. And a fresh gardenia of course. This look is channeling old Hollywood glamor in every way.”
Li Jun Li in Babylon: “This pink party dress was inspired by the traditional Cheongsam dress introduced in the early 20th century. Her character is very influenced by the fabulous Anna May Wong, who was also known to wear this style of dress occasionally. I wanted this dress to be sensual and sexy as she seduces Nellie while wearing this gown. I also knew she would be dancing the tango, and she knew the choreography, so we could tailor the dress to make it work beautifully with the dance. Again, pure old Hollywood glamor.”