Dressing Tammy Faye Bakker is a dream job, and it’s one that costume designer Mitchell Travers was excited to dive into for Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The time period lends itself to near parody (shoulder pads, chunky jewelry, and pastels–oh my!), but Travers wanted to honor Tammy Faye as much as he could with her wardrobe. I posited that this particular time period was great for fashion, but Travers put it into clearer focus for me. “An incredible time for confidence and risk-taking,” he said.
Jessica Chastain wears a lot of different outfits, and you don’t see anything repeated. When you have people in the public eye as much as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker were, you have to find a right balance of recreating looks we are all familiar with with items that we have never seen.
“I felt that we were taking a look at a woman who was covered by the media in an excessive nature,” Travers said. “We owed it to her. She was very careful about her image and she was careful as to what she was wearing in front of the press. I wanted to know what was going through her mind when she got ready for those key moments. I studied her pretty obsessively to figure out why she was getting dressed in those ways. Since she lived on camera, I felt it was important to get those little details as correctly as I could. I had a big responsibility to follow her lead in those key moments. It was also important that deviate a little bit to tell her story in moments that weren’t covered by the press.”
What is so magical about The Eyes of Tammy Faye is that it’s asking its audience to take a closer look at a woman who was so scorned in the public eye. She became an easy target for comedians and late night hosts, but she took such an interest in the LGBTQIA community when most of her religious brethren took the low road. Tammy Faye’s ideals of loving your neighbor and not judging one another is the cornerstone of Travers’ approach.
“She was a woman who approached everyone with a tremendous amount of respect even though she was not always treated with a tremendous amount of respect in her life. It was important to us that we met her in the same way that she met everyone else.”
As you could probably imagine, Tammy Faye took an interest in how she looked from a young age. As her empire grew, she was able to afford shinier and more expensive duds. When you watch the film you can almost see the fabrics getting more luminous as time goes on.
“From an early age, yes, she was always interested in fashion. She always loved getting dressed even though she didn’t come from the greatest of means, so it started with the transformative nature of makeup. She could almost apply confidence. It began with that and, as her resources and reach grew, she took it very seriously and wanted to look a certain way. It got carried away, of course. Tammy used to say that her shopping addiction was cheaper than a therapist.”
One of my personal favorite outfits comes when Tammy and Jim attend a pool party, and Tammy takes a seat at a table of men. It’s a bold move, but Tammy was always considered a bold woman. The pink and green colors jump out immediately, and you notice the difference between her and her male counterparts. They are dressed in dark, almost masculine tones while Tammy is wearing lighter tones. It tells us a lot about her personality
“The color came from the classic pin and green mascara tube. There’s a subliminal thing going on for some people when you pair those two colors together. It’s the first moment where Tammy can meet a real somebody, and it’s kind of a slap in the face how that interaction goes down. She wants to be at that big table. I wanted something bold there, because she is literally pulling up a chair to sit with these powerful men at the table. I loved that. I wanted to play with that subliminal messaging, because for people who watched their mothers put it on throughout their life, it hits all the right notes. She is also in a sea of menswear. The colors are semi-inspired by Easter, but I mainly wanted her to pull focus with her clothes.”
When we see Tammy Faye performing on television, her looks are definitely more elevated. I couldn’t let Travers go without asking about the sparklingly bold, red Christmas jumpsuit Tammy wears when she sings for her audience. You will want to strut into your family holiday festivities with this outfit.
“That was the first piece I bought for her. We didn’t know there was a Christmas sequence when we started shooting, but I thought it was such a bizarre item of clothing. I needed it around me–even if it was going to be inspiration. Jessica [Chastain] saw it, and I think her love affair for Christmas came out of her love of that jumpsuit. Before we knew it, there were 115 white Christmas trees and a whole musical number. Tammy was fearless in the way she got dressed. In my whole approach to the character, I wanted to shop like her. If something made me really happy, I would get it and we would find a way to make it happen. That jumpsuit was one of the items that I couldn’t pass up.”
While Tammy Faye is obviously the flashier character, Jim Bakker provided Travers with some interesting challenges. Jim was a showman in his own right, but he was also someone hiding and suppressing himself. That internal turmoil was something Travers was interesting in tackling. There is one key, however, to dressing Jim Bakker…
“Polyester. Andrew and I both loved the boyishness to the character and how he dresses. There are a few scenes where he is making plans for the water park, and I wanted to dress him like Bob the Builder. I do think there is a part of Jim that wanted as much attention that Tammy was getting. It was a fun back and forth to dress them together. Based on my research on who was there at the time, Jim had a lot to say about what Tammy was wearing. All the time. I thought that was an interesting insight, because she wasn’t subtle. Being a man in the Christian Right, you have to do stuff in a certain way. It was interesting to play with the idea of wanting to get more attention but then fitting in with everything around you.”
With a feast of clothing at his disposal, I wondered what Travers would steal for his own closet. There is a patchwork jacket that Tammy drapes on her back in a scene with her mother that is to die for, and Andrew Garfield wears a navy polo that I’ve been hunting for ever since I saw the film.
“I would take some of the plastic jewelry that Tammy wore. It’s so hard to find the matching items with the bracelets with the earrings, so any time I was able to find the originals, I wanted them. My mom and grandmother told me that I should’ve called them.”
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is available to rent now and will be available to purchase on November 16.