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‘Babylon,’ ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Costume Designers on Defining Their Characters’ Looks



The glamorous costume arc of silent film ingenue turned talkie-era flameout Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) offers a cautionary tale, like Damien Chazelle’s movie itself. She audaciously crashes a Hollywood producer’s debauched party — sartorially manifesting her big break. “She’s already a star in her own mind,” says costume designer Mary Zophres, imagining that Nellie DIY’d her “power”-signaling red low-plunge, leg-baring playsuit out of a scarf and tap pants she probably stole from a former dance gig. “She goes there with the intention of ‘someone’s going to see me in this and put me in a movie,'” says Zophres, who instinctively draped a circa-’20s embossed silk charmeuse scarf over Robbie in a fitting. “She does just that.”

The advent of talkies scuttles Nellie’s career and confidence, so the studio attempts to reinvent her as “an actress of sophistication.” The struggling starlet arrives at a society party, visibly uncomfortable, in an overly proper gray high-neck and long-sleeved gown, with fussy detailing involving “30 strips of 3-inch gathered ruffle,” Zophres says. “She’s literally being strangled in this outfit,” she adds, using a “stiffer” duchesse satin to emphasize Nellie’s constraint. “She almost looks like she’s a decoration.” The efforts prove disastrous, as Nellie reverts to vulgar jokes and vomits extravagant canapés onto the host. “The dress helps feed that explosion of emotion,” says Zophres.

Out of luck in Hollywood and finances, Nellie eventually leaves on her own terms — and style: a purple lamé balloon-sleeve jacket, layered over a bias-cut gown. “It picks up where Nellie began. It’s just with a little bit wealthier means,” says Zophres, who suggested Nellie wear the vintage jacket as a dress for her final scenes.

Letitia Wright right as Shuri.

Letitia Wright (right) as Shuri.

Courtesy of MARVEL

In Ryan Coogler’s Marvel sequel, the funeral sequence serves as catharsis and collective mourning for the cast and crew, the Wakandan people and, importantly, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright). King T’Challa’s (the late Chadwick Boseman) younger sister stoically agonizes over the loss of her beloved brother, while facing new responsibilities as the sole royal heir. “Shuri’s costume has everything to do with setting the stage for the whole movie,” says Ruth E. Carter, who won her first Oscar for 2018’s Black Panther. “The hooded shroud, the tusk earrings and her neck rings, which are part of the costume language of Wakanda. Everything felt heavy and told you that she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.”

Earlier in the high-tech lab, the STEM genius makes last attempts to save an ailing T’Challa, while presciently dressed in a one-sleeve dress with a futuristic mock neck and armor-like mesh. “It should be about her grief,” says Carter of Shuri’s mesh organza overlay. “So, we toned things down to grays and simple silhouettes and a texture that felt like a protective layer.”

Later, on an undercover mission to save Wakanda from multiple threats, Shuri dons a purple tracksuit, designed in collaboration with the Adidas School for Experiential Education Design (SEED) program. The sporty ensemble, in Wakandan royal purple, foreshadows her triumphant superhero future — with a fluttery cape billowing out as she rides off on a motorcycle.

After experiencing another devastating loss, Shuri begins to accept her grieving process. She takes on the mantle of Black Panther, and discovers a new future for herself — and Wakanda. “She doesn’t look like the genius scientist or the princess. She doesn’t look like she’s grieving at a funeral. She’s not in a Panther suit,” says Carter, about Shuri’s finale cropped black hoodie, denim shorts and sneakers. “She is completely leveling to who [she is] and finding herself.”

“Joy [Stephanie Hsu] gets a lot of attention,” says first-time nominee Shirley Kurata. The Wang family’s only child monopolizes the spotlight by acting out, in behavior and fashion, as chaotic alter ego Jobu Tupaki. But father Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) continuously telegraphs his steadfast strengths — often unacknowledged and underappreciated — through his unassuming Chinatown-bought outfits. “He chose to live his life with kindness,” says Kurata, noting how the character honors immigrant fathers, including her late father. “We should pay attention to those people and acknowledge that there’s that spiritual wealth that is rarely talked about.”

Waymond’s striped long-sleeve polo, baggy cargos and a multifunctional pleather fanny pack depict ultimate dad fashion. The consistency of his comforting and familiar outfit across multiple universes — and Waymonds — embody his enduring positivity and unconditional love for his family. Kurata, whose parents, like the Wangs, owned a SoCal laundromat, referenced a candid photo of an exuberant Asian dad in a playful family moment.

Waymond’s striped ensemble remains consistent across multiverses, as he encourages wife Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) to complete their tax audit, save the universes and embrace her life choices. Kurata subtly conveyed his unwavering optimism through a plush pig key chain, which dangles off his fanny pack-cum-martial arts weapon and swings excitedly as Alpha Waymond vanquishes four Jobu acolytes. “That’s a little fun Waymond touch,” says Kurata. “He finds joy in those little things.”

Movie Star Universe Waymond, on the other hand, smolders like a Wong Kar Wai heartthrob in sleek black suiting, presenting an emotional masquerade. “He’s wealthy. He’s well dressed. He looks great,” says Kurata. “But there’s a sadness attached to him because he lost Evelyn.”

At the end of the film, the Wangs show a united front at the IRS and Waymond debuts a new polo. “It says ‘fashion, fashion, fashion’ all over,” says Kurata. “That’s his fun little cheeky way of showing his personality.”

Lesley Manville as Ada Harris admiring a couture gown.

Lesley Manville as Ada Harris admiring a couture gown.

Dávid Lukács/Ada Films Ltd./Harris Squared Kft/Focus Features

This high-fashion fable presents a lesson that kindness will reap dividends, with Christian Dior Haute Couture gowns serving as catalysts. In 1957, war widow Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) soldiers on cleaning houses in double florals: a cheerful apron over her trusty ’40s-era shirt. “She doesn’t make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean she has to be dreary,” says Jenny Beavan, last year’s Oscar winner for Cruella. “There’s always hope.”

At the haughty Lady Dant’s (Anna Chancellor), Mrs. Harris is mesmerized by a resplendent Dior gown hastily strewn on a chair. “It [had] to sparkle on its own,” says Beavan, taking inspiration from a Spring-Summer 1949 archival dress. Mrs. Harris holds the gown up against her own flower motif and admires her reflection. The shimmering 3D petals of lilies of the valley, roses, lilacs and forget-me-nots almost magically motivate Mrs. Harris to procure her own couture — and allow love in her heart again.

Thanks to a karma-induced windfall, goodwill from strangers and sheer tenacity, Mrs. Harris arrives in Paris and crashes the elite confines of a Dior Couture runway show. She watches in wonder as models parade and audibly gasps at the penultimate dress: the ruby-red “Temptation,” dazzling with intricate sequined embroidery.

“It [needed to] have a color and sparkle that would appeal to Mrs. Harris, but without being brash,” says Beavan, referencing a Fall-Winter 1957 Dior Diablotine gown gleaming with “probably 5,000 hand-sewn sequins.” As atelier muse Natasha (Alba Baptista) artfully removes a draped shrug to reveal an alluring neckline atop a drop-waist and full skirt, Mrs. Harris is overcome with jubilant anticipation of her — spoiler — eventual fairy-tale ending. “She’s a woman who does have hope,” says Beavan. “She gets sad, but she’s always looking forward.”

Austin Butler as the title character in Warner Bros.'  Elvis.

Austin Butler as the title character in Warner Bros.’ Elvis.

Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

Early in the Baz Luhrmann-directed movie, and the King’s game-changing career, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) incites frenzy and elation at a Memphis concert. As he bursts into the suggestive “Baby Let’s Play House,” his bubblegum-pink Western suit billows and clings, enhancing his frenetic hip thrusts and leg shakes. Later, on television, Elvis — in a pink checked jacket from Beale Street’s Lansky Bros., frequented by Black music legends like BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — causes a national sensation. His pelvis-swiveling rendition of “Hound Dog” also incurs the wrath of government censors.

“Baz really wanted the audience to be clear that Elvis was a rebel, going against that straight-laced societal ’50s view that men were all wearing gray suits and sober ties,” says Catherine Martin, who also earned Oscar noms as producer and producer. designer on the film. The real Presley was fond of pink — “provocative in that period” — thus allowing a color tool to signal the cultural change Elvis fostered. But with the “limited” palette, Martin needed to “find a way of describing character with a lot of nuance, and with not very many items of [pink] clothing.”

Facing pressure to conform, but still pushing against gender constructs and racial segregation, Elvis wears a rosy lace shirt to confide in BB King at the Black music community’s gathering spot, Club Handy. “He did wear a lot of lace shirts in this period,” says Martin. She stayed true to Presley’s documented and envelope-pushing wardrobe, which demonstrated the legend’s impact and trajectory over the film’s three decades. “It was about finding things that were in the Elvis vocabulary in that period that would still be impactful today in explaining to the audience why Elvis was so different,” says Martin. “So exciting. So sexually provocative.”

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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