The costume designer talks the beauty and the scope of designing Elton John’s wardrobe for Rocketman.
Julian Day needs at least an Oscar nomination for his costume design in Rocketman. If everything else I love fails to get mentioned on nomination morning and Day’s work is honored, I would be a happy camper. Musical biopics are especially big right now (Day also received a BAFTA nomination for his work on last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody), but there’s something special about his recreation of Elton John’s clothing transformation. John never dresses conservatively, and Day’s designs celebrate everything that is fabulous about the music legend.
When you go back and watch sequences from Rocketman, you realize how massive it is, and everything pops. At the very beginning, the background dancers in “The Bitch Is Back” all sport colorful dresses, and men are decked out in striped vests and every pattern you can think of. As Elton becomes more and more famous, the clothes get more elaborate, and that’s an understatement. No one dresses like Elton John while he is performing, and every time the camera swirls around, star Taron Egerton is wearing something bigger and more diamond-encrusted than the last time.
There is something really joyous about Rocketman that comes through the costume design. Day doesn’t shy away from adding more sparkle and more flair to every piece of fabric. It’s a beautiful tribute to a living legend.
Awards Daily: I don’t mean to geek out on you, but I love your work on this movie. I love Rocketman.
Julian Day: It means a lot to me because I really love this movie. This one, I could literally be on the phone talking about it for hours.
AD: This movie, from a costume design standpoint, is really huge. How did you tackle that?
JD: Coming off the back of another musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, it wasn’t as daunting as it could be. Ultimately, when you have a director like Dexter [Fletcher], who is so warm and interesting, at your side truly helps. The most daunting thing was that I was representing the icon that is Elton John. He’s alive and he’s very much still around. That was one of the challenges I faced. When he saw this film, I wanted him to think, ‘I get this. I love this. I want that outfit.’ If he didn’t like it, I would’ve failed. I have a beautiful, handwritten letter from him about how much he loved the film and how much he loved the costumes and he wished me luck. That’s my job done.
AD: I heard the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ outfit was your favorite design. What about that piece is so important to you?
JD: Well, it’s one of those things where people ask what’s your favorite and it’s so difficult. When I get asked this, I tend to pick on what my mood feels like that day. For me, the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ outfit is really important because it’s at the end of the movie. It’s almost the entire culmination of the entire film—it’s his journey to Oz really. He achieves the impossible. Dexter came to me and told me that they were going to use the song in the scene at the restaurant, and he told me to come up with an incredible outfit. It only took me a few minutes. I wanted to incorporate elements from the four main characters of The Wizard of Oz. The Dorothy blue suit with the ruby red slippers, and the Swarovski red crystals are the exact same shade that was used on Judy Garland’s slippers.
AD: Oh wow.
JD: The fur coat is for The Cowardly Lion, the silver shirt is for The Tin Man, and the straw hat is for The Scarecrow. There’s emerald in his belt and here and there. The Wizard of Oz is an incredible film anyway, so to represent that was a real honor for me. It’s a beautiful film to look at, so that’s why it’s become one of my favorite outfits in the entire film. There are obviously others. The montage scene during ‘Pinball Wizard’ has so much. It starts at the Royal Albert Hall with the big, cockerel outfit and goes right into the montage where the piano is swirling around with those six other outfits. Even though I was there when they filmed it, and I designed all the outfits, I kept thinking, ‘Is this real? Taron looks so much like Elton.’
AD: The montage sequence is where I felt we were truly watching Elton John. You’re right—it’s uncanny. Everything in the movie is so clean and so fabulous and beautifully rendered. How do you control that and make sure it’s not excessive?
JD: Having just done a musical biopic and reproduced a lot of Freddie’s outfits and not exaggerate them, we sat down and planned to not do another Bohemian Rhapsody. We planned it being a musical fantasy with a nonlinear structure and it was more about Elton looking back on his life. I went to the archives and I looked through the original clothes. There’s not a huge amount from the 70’s, but a lot from the 80’s, 90’s, and the early 2000’s. What I wanted to do was look at silhouettes—sometimes I feel like that’s the most important. Once you’ve got that silhouette, you can fill it however you want. I took a generic look at everything he’d worn in his entire career, and there were a lot of outfits that he had stripes or stars on. I almost went in a linear timeline that way. In the ‘Pinball Wizard’ montage, I found this striped, sequined fabric in Paris, and I looked at the general feel of what he wore. I would go out and buy fabric and I found find stuff that I liked and I would keep it for something. Or I’d see a hat and I’d want to use it some place. I got this idea of a big playbox filled with silhouettes, shapes, and fabrics, and then you put that one with that one to make that.
There was a time where Elton wore a lot of feathers or there are a lot of crystals—Swarovski literally gave me a million crystals. My mantra was always, ‘Is this an area with five crystals? Put ten in there.’ It just gave it that extra dimension. Take the Dodgers outfit for instance. I wanted to redesign a bunch of things so they weren’t just a replication, but there were a few outfits I just knew I had to do—the Dodgers was one of them. There was this silhouette, but I wondered how I could make it. I used something like 40,000 crystals on it, and it’s very, very heavy. All of those things are quite important to create that fourth dimension. It all added in making it a real extravaganza.
AD: You had a lot of freedom to play.
JD: I sat down with Dexter, and one of the references he used was David LaChapelle. Looking at his photographs, they are so wild and expressive and outrageous. I also looked at Tim Walker and Helman Newman from the 80’s because it’s slick and sexy. Dexter would just let all the other departments to go away with a strong ideas of what he wanted—nothing specific, but a strong idea. He’d let us run wild. Elton didn’t interfere and didn’t tell us, ‘Oh, I never wore that.’ He’d let us just get on with it. If you get the right team around you, as I did with my team, I could tell them to use their creativity. No one micromanaged me or my team. I would ask them for different kinds of blue fabric, and they would come back with different types. Silk, wool, everything. Everything is an incredible process and we were given such freedom. The studio allowed us to have so fun with this poignant and sad story. Every time I come out of it, I find myself smiling. It’s such a joyful celebration.
AD: I feel like I also really responded to the movie just because it’s rare to see a gay, fabulous man living his life on screen in such big way. And that’s fully supported by his wardrobe because he lives so extravagantly. I love Elton John, too, so that helps, but I left the theater with a smile on my face, too.
JD: That’s what I wanted to come across. The same goes with Freddie Mercury. There is a use of the clothing to express their sexuality but not so overtly. I remember in Rhapsody when Freddie would wear the leather trousers and cap, but Elton is actually quite a masculine guy. I wanted to create these strong silhouettes with these jackets with really big shoulders. Very dominant and masculine, but at the same time cover it in crystals and shine. We have the strong outline, but then it’s very camp and theatrical and fun. The scene where he wears the cockerel, it was a cross between an Elizabethan outfit with a codpiece that’s synonymous with that masculinity but at the same time it was made with sequined fabric. He was a cockerel in a hen coop strutting around and being very almost comic and then he’d have these masculine arguments. I’d want to break the idea of what people thought of him.
AD: The masculinity is something that I wanted to talk about because Freddie Mercury—just by looking at him—is very masculine. He’d have the undershirt and the leather pants on, and it’s so simple. Some of your other films like Dom Hemingway, Robin Hood, and Rush all have that manliness to it. Rocketman is so colorful and over-the-top.
JD: Thank you.
AD: I keep thinking of what I would steal from the set if I were a performer. In the ‘Benny and the Jets,’ I became obsessed with that sparkly, dark blue tank top that he wears before someone rips it off of him. Something as simple as that can be fabulous. I’m starting to buy a lot of eye wear, so I’m obviously infatuated with every pair of glasses that Taron wears. Is there anything you stole from set for yourself?
JD: I might have…(laughs). I’ve actually got the white suit and the boater. I really love the simplicity of the white suit at the end of the film. It’s quite funny, because the glasses he wears in the ‘I’m Still Standing’ number actually belong to my wife. I bought them in this tiny, tiny shop in the middle of Wales and there are some other glasses I use in the film. I’ve got a big collection of clothes and glasses from things I’ve worked on. It’s nice that you like the glasses, because they are important to me. And they are important to Elton. He actually keeps them in a separate place from his clothes. They were fun to do. The shoes as well. I love shoes. I try to get a memento from every film.
AD: And with men, we don’t get to see a lot of head-to-toe looks, so it’s great that we get to see from the tip of the nose with his glasses to the bottoms of his feet.
JD: You get it all.
Rocketman is available to own now.