August 29 2014

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The Artist‘s Artist


“When we wrapped, we had no idea how things would turn out,” says costume designer Mark Bridges of The Artist, the nostalgic silent film (in theaters now) about Hollywood’s golden era by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin. “We thought, it could be the greatest thing since sliced cheese, or it could go direct to video. There are no guarantees in this business.” (He would know, having costumed everything from Boogie Nights to Blow.) But after scoring five nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, it looks like Bridges, Hazanavicius, and company have their answer.

The Jazz Age isn’t just enticing filmgoers at the moment; fashion audiences are eating it up, too. Coincidentally or not, the costumes Bridges created for Bejo echoed the twenties-inspired and Deco shapes on the Spring runways, at shows like Gucci, Marc Jacobs, and Etro. And though they’re currently hanging in Bejo’s closet in Paris, those costumes are also getting attention from museum curators, including those from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and will be included in FIDM’s annual Motion Picture Exhibition this spring. Here, Bridges speaks with about re-creating the spirit of an era in crepe de chine.

How did you prepare for the movie?
I have an extensive library—every birthday when I was a kid my parents would ask what movie or book I wanted so I have built up a big collection over the years. I watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies—like, 24/7. There are people who don’t like to use other films as research but I love it. I looked at old silent film stars and pulled candids and press images of them. It was important to look at that era and notice what changed or didn’t change during those times. Even in the thirties, they kept the same hat shapes from the twenties. It was great that we were filming in Hollywood because I was set up to walk into Western Costume Company and go to the twenties section and I could just see what speaks to me.

Did you look to specific silent film stars or certain silhouettes they were wearing?
Yes, Bérénice and I both felt that [her character of] Peppy could be based on a young Joan Crawford, who hadn’t gotten very mannered yet. We looked at a lot of her early films and the dress Peppy wears for her first dance has the same DNA of the fringed one Joan wears in Our Dancing Daughters.

Did anything about twenties clothing particularly surprise you during this process?
I was surprised at how sexy they were; very body-conscious, free-style, and very feminine. That was the most surprising to me. I was also surprised at how short the dresses really were. They were like sixties dresses, not minis, but certainly very short.

I can imagine it wasn’t easy to pull these costumes together. How did you do it?
We would often find things that perspiration and moths had not been kind to over 90 years. They were OK for background characters but I couldn’t use them on the main actors. We would put it on Bérénice just to see if we liked the shape and then had cutter/fitters reproduce the piece down to every single detail. We used lots of heavy crepe de chine—in the Sears catalogs from 1927, most of those dresses are made of crepe de chine. I also have a collection of vintage collars and we would add those to some of the costumes. We looked for details to add punctuation marks. I also hadto pay attention to the graphics of black and white. Basically, whatever we had to do—make it, rent it, buy it, adjust it—we did.

Did you encounter any challenges?
The day we had to shoot the scene with Bérénice where she puts her arm in a tailcoat and she’s hugging herself was quite tricky. They worked all weekend trying to figure it out and then they asked me to come up with something. We created a secret, lowered armhole and put a piece of fabric in there. Whatever my plan was, it worked. You can’t even see it!

What do you think about the resurgence of the twenties on the runways and the red carpet right now?
I think it’s great; it goes in waves, of course, with fashion. For example, when the Gatsby movie came out in the early seventies, it revived twenties fashions, too. Personally, I think this is coincidental that it’s a trend right now at the same time our movie is out. I wasn’t aware of it at the time we were making the movie. People like the twenties look because it’s very simple and sexy—I think it’s a good time for that in the world.

We’ve seen period costume designers, like Mad Men‘s Janie
Bryant, approached by retailers and designers to work on capsule collections. Is that something that would interest you?

I would love that, actually. In my research, I learned that the way these twenties pieces are constructed, in one garment, can be very simple, and in others they can be very complicated. That’s what made an elusive fit that we can’t always get these days. Knowing this, I would like to share some of these secrets and use them in a collection.

Photos: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company