Clothes Make Characters: 2017’s Finest in Costume Design

Rewind Fashion

An exploration of the best movie fashion of 2017.

It’s been a tough, ugly year: in politics, in Hollywood, for women in Hollywood and beyond. But this time of year, it’s customary to remember and celebrate the year’s finest and most beautiful. As hard as it is, list-making can be a therapeutic task: within the confines of a “Best of” list, nothing hideous or unpleasant ever exists. So why not make another one to kick off 2018 right?

This is my third year of compiling my favorite costuming from the past 12 months—I can rightfully call it an annual tradition now. So here they are, the 11 movies that featured clothing I adored the most. For several of them, I singled out a garment and provided insights from costume designers when available. Some of the costumer quotes are directly from my own interviews. In all cases, quotes are properly linked and credited.

But before I dive into it, a couple of caveats: First, I didn’t rank the below list. Instead, I put the films in alphabetical order (unlike the ranked lists I made back in 2015 and 2016). Second, here are some honorable mentions I wasn’t able to include: Wonder Woman (the blue gown), Battle of the Sexes (several ensembles worn by Andrea Riseborough, as well as costumes worn by Elisabeth Shue and Sarah Silverman), Blade Runner 2049 (Ryan Gosling’s Shearling jacket), A Fantastic Woman (sparkly stage gown worn by Daniela Vega), Atomic Blonde (various coats and heels worn by Charlize Theron), Okja (Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe), Their Finest (the menswear-inspired, 1940s clothing of Rachael Stirling), It Happened in L.A. (Dree Hemingway’s wardrobe).

Annabelle: Creation

Costume Designer: Leah Butler

Memorable Fashion: Various ensembles worn by the children.

Few things are scarier in horror than dolls and children. A successful spinoff from The Conjuring universe (still one of the best horror films of this century), the David F. Sandberg-directed Annabelle: Creation has both. And to my delight (and terror), the ensemble of children in the film—a group of mid-1950s orphans re-located to a country home with a dark past—look like dolls themselves through brilliant costuming by Leah Butler. The chief garment must be the vintage nightgown worn by Lulu Wilson when she attempts to throw the Annabelle doll down in a well. Still, I won’t pick just one item of clothing from this film, as the collective costuming is what’s effective in this flick that mostly takes place in and around a stand-alone home. The harmonious richness of the stills above—which includes high-waist baggy trousers, overalls, embroidered sweaters and sweet fit-and-flare dresses—speak for themselves.

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Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name

Costume Designer: Giulia Piersanti

Memorable Fashion: Mrs. Perlman’s wardrobe.

Everything about Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a 1980s-set tale of summer romance, sparkles with sensual beauty. Giulia Piersanti’s subtle period costumes are no exception. A fashion designer by trade, the repeat Guadagnino collaborator avoided going too period-y in order to not do a disservice to the film. She told me, when I interviewed her for Variety last month, “the key was giving a sense of insouciant adolescent sensuality, summer heat and sexual awakening.” For a generous doze of that sensual summer heat in costumes, look no further than the sweat stain on the armpit of Mrs. Perlman’s silk shirt in one daytime scene. Strangely enough, Mrs. Perlman (Amira Casar) doesn’t look unclean or even in need of a fresh shirt in the said scene. Instead, she looks amply put together while embracing the summer heat in the lush garden of her beautiful Northern Italy villa. Throughout the film, Mrs. Perlman sports an ultra-chic wardrobe in an earthy, controlled palette, consisting of browns, mustards, army green shirts, silk bourette shorts and braided belts; all modeled after vintage Armani pieces inspired by Piersanti’s own family photo albums. Piersanti didn’t want Casar’s wardrobe to look “thrown on”. She was going for the Italian fashion of the time, with a bit of American casualness, trying to balance a beautiful shirt with jeans and white sneakers.

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Girls Trip

Girls Trip

Costume Designer: Danielle Hollowell & (Assistant Costume Designer) Provi Fulp Ramphal

Memorable Fashion: You can’t fire Dina. She won’t have it.

Achievement in contemporary costume design frequently gets ignored in awards season. So let’s take a moment to appreciate the fun, modern-day costuming of Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip. I am a fan of the one-shoulder blue dress worn by the squad’s power figure Ryan (Regina Hall) and the “mosquito net” dress worn by the slightly uptight Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), but my ultimate pick is the dress worn by Dina (the fearless Tiffany Haddish) when she is first introduced in the film. She simply refuses to be “let go” by her exasperated boss in a bold and daring mini sheath that screams confidence with embroidery, embellishments, geometric patterns and an explosion of colors. Within regards to Haddish’s casting, “We knew what we wanted her to look like, but she walked in and informed everything for us,” says costume designer Hollowell in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “We knew that was Dina and we just went for it with all her choices — bold, bright and everything that New Orleans stands for.” This dress is by Peter Pilotto and retails at, um, $1,920 (OK, definitely out-of-reach for this character.) But perhaps the savvy Dina is a user of RealReal (high-end fashion lovers’ worst kept secret) and got a deal for it, who knows? In any case, if you have a 24-inch waist and $375 burning your pockets, the luxury consignment site currently carries this Peter Pilotto number. (Thanks to Blaq Vixen Beauty for the tip!)

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Lady Bird

Lady BirdCostume Designer: April Napier

Memorable Fashion: Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving Dress

I know what you’re thinking: “But the prom dress!” “But the audition dress!” I don’t disagree. In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, both garments make a purposeful appearance in charting Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s journey through her senior year in a Sacramento Catholic high school. But I’ll give the edge to the romantic lace dress here, jointly picked by Lady Bird and her mother at a thrift store for Danny’s grandmother’s Thanksgiving party. This surprising dress doesn’t quite confirm our thus-far perception of Lady Bird: it’s (for lack of a better word) “girly”, pinkish-nude, with a proper 50s-esque silhouette. It instead illustrates her desire to fit in an environment, with a new identity she tries on for a while. Plus, we see her mother alter the dress in a wonderful, brief scene that portrays the multi-talented, scrappy homemaker she is for her financially struggling family. “Danny’s family is Kennedy-esque [in a] classic and traditional way,” costume designer April Napier said when I interviewed her last month. “So she shops at the thrift store [to find something] that would fit into what Danny’s grandmother would buy or like, trying to fit into that stereotype.” The dress not only makes perfect sense for her particular state of mind at that time but also looks beautiful.

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Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth Film

Costume Designer: Holly Waddington

Memorable Fashion: The scene-stealing blue dress that imprisons Katherine

When we first meet Katherine (Florence Pugh) in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, she is 17 in 19th Century England and getting married to a man much older than her. Later on, “I’m thick-skinned,” she declares to her new husband and an air of chill fills their bedroom in their rural country house made up of unified, quiet colors. So when we first see her in her immaculately sculpted, tight-waisted blue dress with a hoop skirt—either sitting by the window or awkwardly in the middle of a velvet tufted couch—her iciness unmistakably cuts through the screen, establishing her both as an outcast and an outsider, and a strong-headed figure. It’s a dress she wears throughout the film so often that she becomes almost inseparable from the garment (economically used by Waddington) she is caged in when she is indoors. (Outdoors is an entirely different story.) In an interview with Awards Daily’s Jazz Tangcay, actress Pugh talks about Katherine’s imprisoning clothes. “I was excited about putting [a corset] on, and I remembered during the fitting, I had to sort my breathing out. Our bodies aren’t designed for that. It made it easier to understand why Katherine was so annoyed and angry. I loved how our costume designer, Holly Waddington did the costumes. When [Katherine’s] out walking, she’s wearing a waxwork skirt and she can walk with her boots, but when she’s home, she has on this stifling dress that you can’t breathe in. It made so much sense for Katherine because when she’s in her nightwear she’s happiest. So, when the men aren’t there she wears her dressing gown.”

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Molly’s Game

Molly's Game

Costume Designer: Susan Lyall

Memorable Fashion: Dress worn by Molly Bloom when she takes over the LA game.

In Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, a real-life entrepreneur who runs a highly exclusive high-stakes poker game for big shots. Her provocative, upscale clothes range from form-hugging bodycon/bandage dresses to those with deep-plunging necklines. But somehow, Susan Lyall’s costuming never objectifies Molly (the film’s female cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen deserves a lot of credit, too.) Instead, the camera portrays a powerful woman, refreshingly comfortable with her sexuality. My Molly’s Game pick is the dress she wears when she first takes over the LA game from Dean Keith. In an email exchange, costume designer Lyall told me that there was a lot of back and forth about this particular costume. Initially, she feared it would be a little too ‘girlie’. But she and Chastain ultimately felt it was the right garment for the atypical moment. “It is by far the frilliest, most feminine of all her looks. By wearing this particular dress, she effectively disarmed the men in the room,” says Lyall. “I knew it was right when she walked on to set, removed her bulky “warm-up” coat and revealed the dress.  Jaws dropped.” The dress was off-the-rack, though Lyall can’t recall the label (they had to cut it out, as it was easily seen through the nude mesh.) When asked about the sexual, provocative nature of Molly’s outfits that don’t disrespect her in an objectifying manner, Lyall says she approached Molly’s wardrobe with the idea of a work uniform. “If a dress was particularly plunging, we would add a jacket or her glasses, which would effectively alter the look. By the time the game moved to New York, the clothes were much more sophisticated, the jewelry was really expensive and that in itself demands a certain respect. Like the game she ran, her look was controlled, not messy at all. Jessica Chastain exudes a natural elegance and heightens the respectability of anything she wears. And somehow, that sense of power does not allow objectification and can be intimidating.”

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Personal Shopper

Personal ShopperCostume Designer: Jürgen Doering

Memorable Fashion: The body harness/sheer overlay gown.

In Olivier Assayas’ haunted Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, an American temporarily living in Paris. She works as an assistant to a top celebrity, doing her personal couture shopping (they are the same size, so she can try on clothes for her boss although she is not allowed to.) And in her spare time, she goes about her real mission, trying to connect with the ghost of her deceased brother. Maureen is casually cool: she wears minimal-to-no make up, rides around a motorcycle in her jeans, leather jackets and plain, baggy t-shirts and sweaters. But when she puts on her employer’s clothes, like a pair of heels or an embellishment-crusted Chanel dress (the film’s most frequently-used still), you can see an entirely different identity clicking into place on her face. This is especially the case when she wears an absolutely stunning (and thought-provoking) Vionnet body harness with a sheer overlay gown, first while shopping and then in her employer’s apartment, unleashing her beasts and desires within. In an interview with Telegraph, Doering reveals that the harness was specifically requested by Assayas. So he surveyed several couture collections for a harness dress. In the end, he found the right one at Vionnet and Assayas immediately liked it. “We chose black because there is something ambiguous about her personality,” says Doering. “She says she hates the job she is doing and the girl she is picking the things for, but when she comes to desire men, she wants to be that woman she hates.” And when Maureen puts on the harness and the overlay gown, she momentarily becomes her.

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Phantom Thread

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Costume Designer: Mark Bridges

Memorable Fashion: Cyril’s wiggle dresses throughout

I promise I am not trolling you by picking a dress worn by Cyril Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fashion-infused drama Phantom Thread. Sure, many of the designs of ‘The House of Woodcock’—especially Alma’s lavender photo shoot gown with precious Flemish lace—are beautiful and tasteful in a grand, jaw-dropping way. Some of them—especially the first dress made for Henrietta Harding—even have a royal dimension. But the works of the 1950s London couturier, at least to my eye, get somewhat overshadowed by the impeccably tailored wiggle dresses and power skirt suits Reynolds’ intimidating sister wears throughout. Cyril’s preferred silhouette repeats for the duration of Phantom Thread: some of her necklines are draped, her waists are cinched and her skirts tastefully fall beneath her knees in a straight line. She usually wears her pearls in a double-line (once, only once, she triples them.) The consistent dark colors accentuate her porcelain skin and portray a powerful woman who isn’t afraid to put her foot down, run the house with her own set of efficient rules and tell her difficult brother to take it down a notch. If ‘The House of Woodcock’ is the Manderley of Rebecca, she is the quietly-controlling Mrs. Danvers with a cool head on her shoulders. “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive,” Cyril says in one scene. Take a look at her in this still. Can you even dare try her on that?

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The Post

Nor D Raf

Costume Designer: Ann Roth

Memorable Fashion: Katharine Graham’s gold caftan

In Steven Spielberg’s The Post, the gold caftan Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) wears during the phone call scene she decides to publish The Pentagon Papers is instantly iconic. In that scene, she is at a retirement party, caught in an impossible in-between: will she keep her head low or will she act in the interest of the American people, while simultaneously raising her paper’s profile? It’s an unexpected look for a character who, until that scene, wears professional skirt suits, bow blouses and generally conservative garments. Here, Graham sparkles in gold, looking both like a savior and an unflappable power figure at once. In an interview she gave to The Hollywood Report, costume designer Ann Roth says she made every stitch Streep wore and made sure her clothes followed a story arch. “I’m a huge researcher to the point where I have to say it’s too much. I read Katharine Graham’s book and I had met her a few times, and had dinner at Ben Bradlee’s house a few times over the years. She probably went to Garfinckels and there was a lady there who would help her.” She continues, “Caftans aren’t that odd, they are everywhere. That was a nice fabric. I live in New York on Lexington Avenue and right up the street are all the great Indian shops, but I finally found that fabric in Edison, N.J. The caftan wasn’t based on real life. It’s just what I decided.” And what a decision that was!

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Wonderstruck

Costume Designer: Sandy Powell

Memorable Fashion: The robe worn by Elaine and Janet.

There is plenty of fabulous costuming to feast your eyes on in Todd Haynes’ Wondestruck, which connects two separate stories—one, set in the 1920s and the other, in 1970s—through an emotional tale of friendship, bravery and family. The 12-time Academy Award-nominated and three-time winning costume designer Sandy Powell richly portrays New York City in both eras with numerous swoon-worthy ensembles worn by street-smart dwellers. But one item from the 1970s segment stood out the most for me. It’s the art-deco robe worn by Elaine (Michelle Williams) and later on by Janet (Morgan Turner), to the confusion of Ben (Oakes Fegley), who mistakes his cousin for his mother in a revelatory scene. When I asked Sandy Powell about this garment earlier in the year for RogerEbert.com, the legendary costumer said they needed an item of clothing that was completely distinctive and recognizable. So she opted in for the robe of an art-deco pajama set from the 20s/30s that would make sense for the scene and would also come off easily. “I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was a real popularity with vintage clothing, Especially ‘20s and ‘30s,” Powell told me. “So, it’s something that a young, bohemian woman would’ve picked up in a thrift store. A fabulous piece of clothing that would’ve cost her nothing.” Well, it would cost a lot more than nothing these days (and vintage clothing from almost a hundred years ago is hard to come by), but it’s a fabulous piece that’s worth spending some time on Etsy for.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife

Costume Designer: Bina Daigeler

Memorable Fashion: Antonina Zabinska saves a baby elephant.

Yes, another outfit worn by Jessica Chastain, this time playing a real-life 1940s Polish zookeeper who saved the lives of hundreds of people during World War II. At first glance, there isn’t anything extraordinary about this ensemble worn by Antonina Zabinska in Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: a form-fitting polka dot blouse with a wide, cowl neckline and a belted, curve-hugging pencil skirt. If anything, she looks like a proper, put-together woman of her time: serving her guests (including the Nazi officer Lutz Heck, whom she meets for the first time) in a courteous and controlled manner, while looking charming and feminine, with her hair appealingly styled with a long piece of ivory ribbon. But the outfit gains a heightened importance when she becomes aware of the trouble in the zoo and needs to save a newborn baby elephant. And all of a sudden, her feminine exterior gets coupled by the relentless fighter she is on the inside, proving that all clichéd exterior perceptions about femininity are incorrect. “Antonina’s daughter, Teresa, told me that in her whole life she never saw her mother wearing pants,” says Jessica Chastain in a behind-the-scenes piece over at the Focus Features site. “It wasn’t easy for me to understand that at first, but then I thought of it as a really beautiful statement. In this world of macho, violent aggression, Antonina was trying to bring softness and femininity and love to everything she did,” she continues. Referring to this outfit as a “1940s femme fatale look that shows Antonina’s immense range, “The real Antonina loved polka dots, and we wanted to introduce them,” says costume designer Daigeler. “I also wanted to show Jessica’s beautiful skin color and so this is why she has this neckline. It was freezing, freezing, freezing cold. But Jessica suffered through it without complaining. She had no problem running with her high heels and tight skirt.”

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.