The costume designers speak with Joey Moser about teaming up for Martin Scorsese’s opus, The Irishman.
They say that clothes make the man, and costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson had their work cut out for them with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Spanning multiple decades, Powell and Peterson were tasked with designing and producing costumes for the main characters as well as more than 6,000 extras. That’s a lot of suits, but they were able to create a wardrobe that is beautifully rendered and gives the audience a sense of how fast times change.
Powell is a legend in her own right (she currently has three Oscars and received nominations for both The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns last year), but she and Peterson have worked together on some other notable films, including Scorsese’s The Departed. Many have noted that The Irishman‘s costume design features a lot of suits, but Powell and Peterson are able to make everything distinct. The suits of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) greatly differ from those worn by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
When you have a master at the helm like Scorsese, he surrounds himself with the best of the best. Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson’s work isn’t always super flashy in The Irishman, but it’s grounded in the character and the time period. Their works is one of the more understated and complex collaborations of the year.
Awards Daily: Is there an underappreciated art to a well-tailored suit?
Christopher Peterson: Absolutely. When you look around the streets someday, you think, ‘Who told you to buy that suit?’
Sandy Powell: Actually the secret to a good suit is a good tailor.
AD: Oh yeah?
SP: We had a lot of our suits custom-made for all of the guys, but they all did wear original vintage suits. They didn’t wear them just as they came off the rack. If you think about it, vintage suits would have been 50 or 60 years old. What we did was have our fabulous tailors take the suits apart and revive them, so we have them tailored to our actors.
AD: I never thought of that. That’s so cool. One of my favorite looks of the whole movie was Robert De Niro’s black cap and the brown leather jacket. I loved that one so much, and it made me think of making these actors look young. Since there’s been so much talk about the de-aging, can you talk about how you planned on designing the younger version?
CP: It really starts with our research. Marty did his own, obviously, and so did we. It starts there. We’d then hunt around the clothes and see what inspired us.
SP: But the leather jacket look is very specifically a typical look for teamsters at the time to be wearing. The cap with the leather jacket would have been a very big look on a young man in that period driving a truck.
AD: It made me think of something Marlon Brando or another great actor of that time would wear.
SP: That’s fabulous. I’m sure Bob would love to hear that.
AD: I would be more than happy to tell him.
SP: The other reason the leather jacket worked is that it is a good look for a young man and it helped Bob feel considerably younger.
CP: It’s also the beginning before we are diving into a lot of him wearing a lot of suits. It’s a nice starting place, and we see him ascending through the ranks.
SP: And Joe is not that young. He’s not that young in that part.
CP: Yes, he’s in his early 50’s.
SP: And his look is very appropriate for a man his age, but it is a contrast to the kind of jackets that we will see a lot later.
AD: Are the neckties part of differentiating all of those suits? I kept thinking of all the fun patterns we don’t see in ties nowadays.
SP: Especially with politicians who wear them very straight, too overlong.
SP: I believe the hats and ties really help individualize you in that time period. It’s the only way a man could have some adornments.
CP: Suits really help mark the passage of time for those who are really looking at it. The lapels and the shoulders tend to really change.
SP: When we start in the 50’s the lapels are wider and the ties are wider but not as wide as they were in the ’40s. But they did get narrower as the ’50s went on, because by the end of the ’50s, they were really narrow. That’s when they are about an inch and a half wide, and the lapels go along with that.
CP: That’s what I meant to say. (Laughs)
AD: Jumping to the women, I wanted to ask two things. One of my favorite pieces in the entire film is something we see very briefly in Russell’s wife’s nightgown. This big, regal white nightgown. I would wear that around my house.
SP: I’m sure Kathrine [Narducci] would love to hear that!
AD: Did you want to make the wives look like royalty? Sandy, you’ve dressed royal characters before.
SP: Yes, I guess they were royalty, weren’t they? What’s nice is that even though they are in the background, their presence is felt. The nightgown example is actually quite funny because it was nylon, and it kept getting stuck on the carpet.
SP: It’s a happy accident that it would look regal. She’s almost like a religious apparition.
SP: She actually had a hard time managing it, but it came out really well.
AD: There’s been a lot of press about Anna Paquin’s character and how much she speaks.
SP: Oh, yeah.
AD: When I was looking at her clothes, I wondered if you considered that her character might be expressing herself through what she wears.
SP: It wasn’t the thought process, [it] wasn’t, ‘Oh, she doesn’t talk much—let’s make her talk through her clothes.’ It’s the ’70s and the clothes then were bold and colorful. She wouldn’t go down the beige route. She was a young woman, and she wasn’t a brown and beige person. It’s quite nice, the contrast—her looking like that and her silence. The silence is only about her father.
AD: You two have worked on films before like Carol and The Departed. The size of this film is insane, so was this the biggest collaboration for the two of you?
SP: Yes, and our relationship doesn’t really change.
AD: When we keep cutting back to De Niro when he’s older and narrating the film, I was wondering about his clothes there. It’s something that we might think doesn’t have a lot of thought put into it. I was calling it ‘old man chic.’
SP: (Laughs) You think he looks chic?
AD: (Laughs) No, I was just calling it that in my head. A nickname, I guess.
CP: All of those later ‘chic’ looks were born out of sense memories of what Sandy and I had of people in our families at that period, but there was one really important piece of research. We had an actual picture of the real Frank when he was living in a nursing home. That very chic outfit that you referred to consisted of a 30-year-old ’70s piece that he had in his closet, a vest from one of his suits in the ’80s, and a pair of high-waisted Champion sweatpants with a pair of Velcro sneakers from Wal-Mart.
AD: So we can all capture that look if we want to?
CP: Yes, Frank a day.
AD: Yes! I love when we get to the scenes that take place in Miami. I love the pops of color and the very infamous shorts. Can you tell me how that changed it up for your designs?
SP: The color palette allowed us to move away from those darker colors, and there are more colorful colors in those Miami scenes. We see that with all the men in the scene with Tony Pro and all the men in their short-sleeved shirts. It was written in the script, so it came down to us trying on a hundred pairs of shorts to get it right. Find the pair.
AD: Not too long, not too short.
SP: And I think it’s how he wears them. He gives them such personality.
AD: The ring is a big item in the movie. Can you tell me about the importance of creating that?
CP: The ring is an actual artifact, for lack of a better word, from Frank Sheeran’s family, as is the watch that Jimmy gives him on the Frank Appreciation Night. The ring itself was something that Russell Bufalino had made from a three-dollar liberty coin surrounded by some 25 diamonds, and the watch is a Tissot watch, and it was so interesting to see men giving each other jewelry. We were shown the actual ring and the actual watch, and our props department copied them.
AD: I always like to ask costume designers what they might actually wear if they could steal something from the set.
SP: Ohhh, that’s tricky. Something we would actually wear. . .
CP: We answer for each other. (Laughs)
SP: There is a big, Pucci dress that Kathrine Narducci wears in the Copacabana scene that I wore to a premiere. We hardly get to see it in the film because she’s hidden behind a table.
CP: The ’60s suits, I was really attracted to. There was one midnight blue that we made for Joe [Pesci] that I would love to have made in my size.
SP: Actually, the thing I would like to wear is a version of Bob’s teamster outfit. I would have the leather jacket made to suit me.