A close-up on this year's film costumes

Los Angeles Times fashion critic

From the lava-like raw-linen tunic inspired by avant-garde Japanese design in "The Tempest" to the Rodarte-designed twisted tutus in "Black Swan," the fashion in this holiday season's "prestige" films is notable for historical references and inventive approaches to traditional costuming.

Here we talk to costume designers about the inspirations ( Grace Kelly and Comme des Garçons), headaches (1930s vintage styles and dense, 32-ounce wools) and triumphs (delicate wings and illumination technology) of working on six stylish new films.

'True Grit'

"True Grit," opening Wednesday, is Joel and Ethan Coen's take on Charles Portis' 1968 novel about a headstrong young girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to avenge her father's murder in 1870s-era Arkansas and Indian Territory. She hires one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn ( Jeff Bridges) and, much to his chagrin, joins him on the trail.

Cutting a wide swath through the wild frontier, they cross paths with outlaws, snakes and a cocksure Texas Ranger named La Boeuf ( Matt Damon). Thanks to costume designer Mary Zophres, the look of the characters along the dusty trail is intoxicating. She spent two months researching the project at Western Costume in North Hollywood, studying original photographs, diaries and books such as "Calico Chronicle: Texas Women and Their Fashions 1830-1910."

Zophres wanted Cogburn to look "iconic without being fancy. "One thing that bothers me about some westerns is that they are too slick," she says. His shirt was a replica of a Union Army issue, and his coat was designed to look like a Civil War blanket. (Zophres sourced wool from Europe, because she wanted a 32-ounce fabric that was produced in the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century but is not available in the U.S. now.) With his signature fringed buckskin jacket, La Boeuf is the dandy of the bunch, but it is Mattie's trail outfit that really inspires. Her oversized green coat cinched with a rough-hewn belt and Stetson "Boss of the Plains" hat is Prada fall/winter 2009 meets Hermès spring 2011.

"Men were not wearing belts in those days," Zophres says, "but they had belts that tied their saddle rolls together. So that's how I pitched it, that she could have wrapped that around the waist. It was really cute. I kind of want that outfit."

'The King's Speech'

The backdrop for this 1930s story is the relationship between speech therapist Lionel Logue ( Geoffrey Rush) and the reluctant Albert, Duke of York, who must deal with a debilitating stammer in the years before he becomes King George VI.

Costume designer Jenny Beavan commissioned bespoke suits for Albert and "off-the-peg" tweeds for Logue. Albert's wife, Elizabeth ( Helena Bonham Carter), wears the charming, softly colored tie-front blouses, long skirts, fur-trimmed coats and feathered hats of the day. (It's easier to find 1930s vintage in the U.S. than in Europe, Beavan says, because America did not experience the devastating bombings that ruined much of the European landscape during World War II.)

But the biggest fashionista in the film appears only briefly: Wallis Simpson ( Eve Best), the controversial American divorcee who captures the heart of Albert's brother, Edward VIII, and costs him the throne. She is dressed for a dinner party at Balmoral Castle in an aubergine off-the-shoulder gown and a necklace with a zipper pendant worn over her bare back. The piece was borrowed from Van Cleef & Arpels and is similar to one Simpson commissioned from the jeweler in the 1930s.

'The Tourist'

At its best, "The Tourist" recalls elegant 1950s-era Alfred Hitchcock films with Kelly, such as "To Catch a Thief." At its worst, it's reminiscent of the kind of slick perfume commercials you see on TV this time of year. But there's no denying that the costumes, in the hands of Colleen Atwood, are resplendent.

The film follows Frank Tupelo ( Johnny Depp), an American tourist in Italy caught up in a web of mistaken identity and international espionage. He's a hapless math teacher from the Midwest, and Elise Clifton-Ward ( Angelina Jolie) is his glamorous heroine, who first appears on screen in a camel cashmere stole, long gloves and a tight skirt accented with an orange sash in back that swishes as she walks.

Jolie's sleek look, all neutral colors and rich fabrics, was inspired by Kelly's elegance, says Atwood, as well as the fashion photographs of Richard Avedon and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. The sash was pure seduction. "It reminded me of wild animals, how they have a flash of color."

All of Jolie's costumes were designed and made by hand, except for a 1950s Charles James dress Atwood found at the Los Angeles vintage store the Paper Bag Princess. ("I couldn't resist," Atwood says.) The costume designer collaborated with Salvatore Ferragamo on Jolie's shoe wardrobe, including a pair of gold heels ($750) that were produced for Ferragamo boutiques. And that antique diamond choker Jolie wears with her Belle Époque-inspired black tulle ball gown was adapted from a tiara from Robert Procop's private collection.

A former Asprey executive, Procop has been making pieces for Jolie for years. And it was Asprey, of course, that tapped Jolie to design a line of fine jewelry last year, so it should come as no surprise that there are several Asprey clutches and jewels in the film as well. That's synergy for you.

'The Tempest'

In Julie Taymor's version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the lead character Prospero has been transformed into a woman (Prospera), a queen who is banished to a deserted island with her daughter Miranda, where she uses her sorceress powers to shipwreck the members of court who sent her there.

Taymor charged Sandy Powell with designing costumes for Prospera and Miranda that looked as if they could have emanated from the landscape (the film was shot on the craggy Hawaiian island of Lanai).

When Prospera summons her powers to create the tempest that is the center of the story, she appears to be cloaked in shards of glass and light, "as if she came out of the rock," Powell says. "We had a basic cloak shape made of mesh onto which we sewed 3,000 shard-like pieces of plastic to look like jagged crystal. It took forever, and once it was done we realized it didn't fold up. It had to be transported in a giant, coffin-like custom box."

In other scenes, Prospera wears a rough indigo-dyed cotton-and-linen tunic, a garment that calls to mind the waves of cooled lava that cover the island. "We looked at the work of a lot of Japanese fashion designers — Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto — and experimented with texture," Powell says.

The members of court were also garbed in a nontraditional manner, wearing black leather, zipper-trimmed doublets. "The basic silhouette was Elizabethan-Jacobean, but the jodhpurs are contemporary. The film is not meant to take place in any particular time period. The zippers I used like decorative braids or gold bullion would have been used on costumes in court."

"Many of the zippers had to be sewn on the leather pieces before those were sewn together," she says. "They were difficult to alter, and they weighed a ton." (35 pounds each, to be exact.)

But they were so terrifically punk rock.

'Black Swan'

It's difficult to imagine a film so well suited to the talents of Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Los Angeles-based designers behind the blockbuster fashion label Rodarte. "Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller set in a New York professional ballet company, is a tale of good and evil, and dark and light, the same themes that have informed so many Rodarte collections.

The film centers on the rivalry between veteran dancer Nina Sayers ( Natalie Portman) and newcomer Lily ( Mila Kunis). Nina is chosen to lead a production of "Swan Lake," which traditionally calls for playing both the white and black swans. But it is Lily who exhibits the sensuality needed to pull off the role of the black swan; she forces Nina to confront her limitations and get to know her dark side.

"The costumes had to play with the duality of a world that is very beautiful and very brutal too," says Laura Mulleavy.

The result is a feast of tulle and feathers drawing inspiration from the paintings of Degas and historical essays, including Marianne Moore's writing about the famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova. The black swan was meant to resemble "a broken, mechanical bird," Mulleavy says. "To make her seductive, we used burnt copper on her crown in the shape of talons and stalactites."

"On the white swan costume, we wanted to simulate the idea of wings but not make them too kitschy. It became about how to use feathers in a delicate way." (All of the plumage was sourced from Italy.)

The designers also created the white gown Nina wears to a party in her honor. The back of the dress is extraordinary with silk tulle creating a sheer bandage that weaves through the straps. "The back is a central focus point in the film because dancers like to show off the bones in their backs," says Mulleavy.

Although the Rodarte runway shows are quite theatrical, "Black Swan" was the first movie for which the Mulleavys were asked to design costumes. It was Portman, whom they have dressed for many a red carpet, who thought of them. (Amy Westcott was also a costume designer on the film.)

For the designers, the experience was not unlike creating a runway collection. "There are huge similarities," Mulleavy says. "For our collections, we always make choices based on an overall story. But we didn't want to create fashion for this film. We wanted the costumes to be realistic in that they conformed to the ballet tradition, but also modern."

'Tron: Legacy'

Skintight, motocross-inspired suits that light up, heel-less platform shoes and a Ziggy Stardust clone in corsets and eyeliner. I'm not talking a runway show in Paris, I'm talking "Tron: Legacy." 

The film follows Sam Flynn ( Garrett Hedlund), the 27-year-old tech-savant son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), as he looks into his father's disappearance on "the grid." It's the same digital universe of tyrants and blood sports that filmgoers were introduced to back in the 1982 original "Tron." And yet it's completely different, just as today's video games are completely different from those of 30 years ago.

The effects are visually stunning, and in terms of iconic looks, the costumes by Michael Wilkinson and Christine Bieselin Clark should rank with those of sci-fi fantasies "Barbarella," "Mad Max," "Blade Runner," "Star Wars" and "The Matrix." While the costumes worn on the grid in the original film were little more than Spandex bodysuits illuminated digitally in post-production, the new grid suits are illuminated internally, using battery packs worn on the actors' backs.

Quorra's ( Olivia Wilde) asymmetrical haircut alone should spawn copycats. (See a Q&A with Clark on P6.)

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