Every time I watch Todd Haynes’ May December, I question everything. This feels like a costume designer’s dream, because is a strong example of how we use clothing to project, hide, and crave a reaction with what we decide to wear every morning. Of all the films in the hunt for the Oscars this year, no other costume design has made me wonder what a character’s outward intentions or motive is. April Napier, who is nominated for Excellence in Contemporary Film at the Costume Designers Guild, truly brought curious arcs to the costumes of all the characters in Haynes’ audacious film.
In our lengthy conversation, we kept coming back to the idea of how Samy Burch’s film doesn’t make things easy for you. Because it is inspired by real-life events, it comes closer to feeling like reality, and some scenes feel too emotionally-charged to watch–but we cannot tear our eyes away.
“Something new is revealed to me every time,” Napier says, excitedly. “It’s the kind of film where you catch yourself laughing and you don’t know if you’re supposed to. It’s such a great film in that way, because it’s engaging the audience. It’s not bossing you around. It lets things happen and truly allows the audience to participate.”
Julianne Moore’s Gracie is a woman who committed a crime and her life is still on display. Her and Charles Melton’s Joe have created such an idyllic life in Savannah for themselves, but I wonder if they always feel eyes on them. Are they constantly wondering if people are gossiping about them when they go into town, and, if so, are they numb to it? Gracie, however, projects this daydream pink fantasy in her clothes. She is often wearing lilac or soft pinks. There is a constant softness to her wardrobe as if she doesn’t want anything that would come across as harsh. Gracie sees herself as innocent, and Napier pulls from some beautiful art and photography as inspiration.
“The first conversation that I had with Julianne was about Gracie’s performative femininity,” she says. “That was really essential for her understanding the character–this princess quality. She’s very ladylike, and that’s where she finds her supposed strength. Is it controlling or manipulative–is there honesty there? We started with the ruffles, lavenders, blushes, and the pinks. That also went into the color of her wig and her makeup. It all created a symphony of who this character was. We had our first fitting, and she’s such a master. She would see a piece and know where it would go in what scene and then she would want to know the next thing. We had a sort of map since we got her on a Friday–we did the fittings in one day–and then we got Natalie on the following day.
Originally, I sent Tina Barney’s Theater of Manners to Todd, so that was a big influence as well as Deborah Turbeville. She is a wonderful, romantic photographer, but in the late ’70s she did these beautiful ads for Valentino. They are soft and romantic, and that was a big touchstone for Gracie. Nicholas Nixon has a book called The Brown Sisters where he took photographs of his wife and her sisters every year for something like thirty years. There’s a late ’70s and early ’80s tip in there. And then, obviously, Persona and Robert Altman’s Three Women–there’s so much lavender there.”
Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, on the other hand, comes to Savannah in harder, darker tones. As she begins to understand the construction of the character of Gracie, the blacks give way to greys and then, ultimately, she embraces more white and blush. Upon her arrival in Savannah, she might be seen as a clear outsider. When Gracie is showing Elizabeth how to bake in the kitchen, Gracie wears a floral shirt under her apron, but Elizabeth puts on an apron with flowers on it. We see her “trying on” Gracie’s life.
“From the script, we knew that Natalie’s Elizabeth was going to be a more urban person since she comes from a city,” she says. “She enters from a more monochromatic uniform with her jeans and her simple tops–Elizabeth has a real Jane Birkin kind of style. She wears a black, knit polo when she is arranging the flowers in contrast with to her lilac blouse. Then she was in the St. Laurent knit when she’s interviewing Gracie’s ex-husband. She slowly goes into greys…then ivories and browns when she’s interviewing the lawyer. Eventually, the tenderness comes in like in the blush colored dress in the graduation dinner.
When Joe and Elizabeth are walking on the beach, I hear something new every time. She is wearing these small kitten heels when she is trying to walk in the sand, and she has to stop and adjust them. It’s those little touches. I want to be quiet as the costume designer, but I don’t want to scream “COSTUMES” at you. I want to support the actors and the characters and the writing–but it has to have a point of view. It has to sneak in there.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about how Elizabeth’s suitcase was packed. Did she anticipate all these changes when she was selecting from her closet? What would her suitcase look like when she gets back on the plane back to LA?
“Natalie and I talked about Elizabeth’s suitcase a lot,” Napier says. “For instance, she wouldn’t bring a lot of shoes since she was bringing a carry-on, and she might buy stuff in town. That’s why she wears the same two pairs of jeans, and if I brought her more, she would tell me that Elizabeth wouldn’t have that much room in her bag.”
May December‘s emotional core comes in Melton’s performance. There has been a lot of press about his physicality and how immature Joe might be from his stunted growth. When he shares a joint with his son on the roof, he is wearing one of his favorite pieces of clothing, a wide striped Abercrombie & Fitch Rugby polo, and that is a great contrast to the clothes that Joe would see other fathers wearing since they are a lot older than him.
“That’s exactly where it’s from,” she says, with a laugh. “In the South, the men have a uniform. Everybody has a blue Oxford shirt, everybody has a blue polo, everybody has a pair of pleated khakis and pleated khaki shorts. Everyone has a Top-Sider. He’s trying to be mature and be the dad, and since he’s Korean, he’s already on the outside with everyone in the town being white. When Todd cast him, he called me and told me that they went in an unexpected direction, and when Charles came in, he was there for about five hours. We just talked. He was so excited and so devoted to Joe. When I watching the dailies, I couldn’t believe how beautiful his performance was. He put everything into it.
When he’s on the roof, we put him in that Abercrombie, because it’s a security blanket for him. That’s something he had from when he was a teen, and we washed it down and dyed it and tried to make it look as old as we could. We paired it with some New Balance shoes and these faded jeans, and that’s where he is vulnerable. He crumbles up there, but that’s where he can be an adolescent again.”
Cory Michael Smith’s Georgie is very specific. He looks like every band frontman that I had a crush on in the late ’90s or early 2000s. He’s not afraid to experiment with jewelry or bulky, metal rings with a buttoned-up shirt over a band t-shirt. Napier pinpointed the wardrobe of every guy I wanted to meet at the stage door.
“We had a lot of fittings for Cory, because that was a tough character to crack,” she admits. “We started with Johnny Rotten, and Todd would saying that it couldn’t be that hardcore. Maybe he would be more Blink-182 or a little bit off, but not too off. It took a while, but I think it’s specific. He’s in three scenes, but we became good friends for how many times we met up together for fittings.”
I want Joe’s Abercrombie shirt, but I also could see myself trying to swipe Gracie’s large sunglasses in her final scene with Elizabeth. Even the detailing of their last minute is character-driven. Gracie tells Elizabeth that she is secure, and while they are both in similar, column dresses, Gracie’s is tied around her waist–literal security. What would Napier swipe for herself?
“Their goodbye scene is so good. It’s like two white knights meeting on the battlefield. I would want Natalie’s sunglasses. Everybody loved what she was wearing and Natalie wanted to take some stuff back with her, but she didn’t want to take that character back with her. She’s be an actor playing an actor playing an actor. We had this beautiful knit polo dress that she took with her. When you go to shops in any season, everyone has the same thing since that’s what’s in style. I did a lot of shopping on The RealReal.
May December is streaming now on Netflix.