W hen Ann Roth was designing the costumes for 1975’s “The Day of the Locust,” set in the late 1930s, her commitment to historical accuracy made her an anomaly.
“Hollywood made dream costumes” then, says Roth, now 79. “They didn’t do what I do.”
Today the industry has caught up with Roth, and this year a handful of celebrated TV productions are set in the first half of the 20th century, with decidedly naturalistic, un-dream-like costumes, so Roth is one of many designers facing the challenges — and pleasures — of re-creating clothing of the first half of the 20th Century.
Roth brought her years of experience and fabric sourcing expertise to HBO’s five-part “Mildred Pierce,” which begins in 1930. The brown floral dress that Kate Winslet wears throughout much of the first episode was made from vintage ’30s rayon, which, says Roth, hangs much better than easier-to-find polyester reproductions. She also selected heavier wools for the men’s suits than the actors and tailors might choose. “If you gave a tailor some 8-oz. fabric and you expect it to look like a period suit, it’s out of the question,” she says.
And despite the body-hugging bias-cut silk dresses there was certainly no Spanx on this set; even the extras wore authentic undergarments — girdles “straight across, with stockings with seams,” says Roth. “It exposed a different woman to them, which is what I’m interested in.”
While the straight corsets worn in “Downton Abbey,” the PBS drama set in 1912-14, actually represented a much freer silhouette for the time, costume designer Susannah Buxton notes that the actresses portraying the privileged Granthams may not have found the slimmer skirts quite so emancipating. “You can’t stride out in them,” she says. “They’re not made for women that work.”
Because today’s bodies are bigger and the pieces are so delicate, no head-to-toe vintage ensembles are worn. Buxton might source vintage panels and fabrics and build them into a garment — like a pink chiffon train with bugle beads that became the bodice of a dress for Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora. Or she might decorate a hat with an original piece of ribbon. “It changes the quality and the look.”
“Boardwalk Empire” costume designers John Dunn and Lisa Padovani are committed to Prohibition-era authenticity, right down to sewing with a 1920’s machine that creates a particular seam and hiring extras with period bodies. “Aerobicized” or surgically altered bodies “don’t look right in the clothes,” Padovani says.
If a character like Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson (“our showboat,” Dunn calls him) needs a new suit, they will refer to the surprisingly colorful tailoring books of the period, but they like to use original clothing whenever possible because time and budget constraints won’t allow them to reproduce the quality of the workmanship.
Sometimes, a garment will start to distintegrate during the shoot, but, says Dunn, “we feel it’s a fitting send-off, because they get to have their wonderful last hurrah on the set. Better than rotting in grandma’s attic.”