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1920s fashion roars back in 'The Great Gatsby'

The 'Great Gatsby' film adaption pulls from archives to present those daring Roaring Twenties outfits accurately.

By Adam Tschorn

Los Angeles Times

7:39 PM EDT, April 19, 2013

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Baz Luhrmann's big-screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby" isn't set to hit theaters until May 10, but long before the first flapper has flapped, it's become one of the most name-checked, on-trend, fashion-influencing films in recent memory.

West Egg wannabes can already step into a nearby Brooks Bros. and step out wearing a pink-striped linen ensemble inspired by the one Leonardo DiCaprio's Jay Gatsby wears on the silver screen. They can also break the bank at Tiffany & Co. on the kind of tasseled pendant necklaces and bejeweled diamond-and-pearl headpieces that bedeck Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan. For those who seek a more immersive experience, New York City's Plaza Hotel (where part of the movie takes place) will temporarily rename its Champagne Bar in honor of Moët & Chandon and serve up a bespoke "Gatsby"-themed cocktail.

And those are just from the film's official partnerships. Add in the glut of other "Gatsby"-inspired goods in the pipeline — smartphone covers, tote bags, sunglasses, bridal gowns — and it's shaping up to be a full-on Roaring Twenties style relapse.

Luhrmann has a theory to explain why "Gatsby" continues to resonate the way it does with the fashion flock.

"Fundamentally, that book is about a period in which fashion itself became the fashion we know today," he said. "In the 1920s, young girls were running around the streets of New York in what their mothers considered to be their underwear [while] the mothers were wearing dresses down to their ankles. That moment was the first youth quake, and it was also a fashion quake, and I think that's what people get excited about.

"It wasn't called the 'Quiet Twenties,'" he added. "It was called the 'Roaring Twenties,' and fashion was roaring. I think people look at [that time period] and want to get into that roaring fashion."

So it's only appropriate that Luhrmann's interpretation of the tale has some serious fashion bona fides — costume designer Catherine Martin collaborated extensively with Brooks Bros. and Tiffany, mining both brands' historical archives for design inspiration for the on-screen menswear and jewelry. In addition, fashion designer Miuccia Prada was tapped to help shape the look of the women's wardrobe, a collaboration that resulted in more than 40 cocktail and evening dresses for the film that were drawn from the Prada and Miu Miu runway collections of the last several decades and backdated to look at home in the 1920s. One of these is the golden, crystal-laden chandelier gown Mulligan wears in a pivotal party scene.

"Gatsby's" amped-up style quotient includes dandies decked out in three-piece suits, tuxedos or striped regatta blazers, accessorized with monogrammed cuff links and walking sticks. They are accompanied by lithe ladies in shimmering silk dresses and dripping in diamonds and pearls. It's a carnival of color to match the cacophonous mood of the era's fling with irrational exuberance.

"The first thing Baz wants to know is what they're wearing in the book, so we dissect each character," said Martin, who besides being an Academy Award-winning costume designer is also Luhrmann's wife. "If there are references to what they are wearing, he wants reference pictures to support the particular descriptions along with contemporaneous references."

That, Martin explained, is how Brooks Bros., founded in 1818, and Tiffany, which dates to 1837, became integral to the costume design process. Not only were they authentic brands of the period, but novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was a customer of both. What began as Martin making archival research requests over time became full-fledged collaborative partnerships in which the brands helped create the costumes and accessories that appear in the film and later would roll out their own "Gatsby"-inspired collections to retail.

Given all the focus on authenticity and historical accuracy, the filmmakers' collaborative efforts with the contemporary Italian designer Miuccia Prada may seem a bit anachronistic, but Martin said she sought out the designer — who has been friends with Luhrmann for 16 years — to help create "an environment that the audience will be subconsciously familiar with, yet separated from."

Luhrmann said he and Prada have long shared a similar vision: "She does with fashion and clothes what I'm interested in doing with story — take something very old and flip it over, shake it up and re-present it for its original universal value but [also] in a way in which it can be received and perceived in this moment and this time."

He added that the collaboration also makes a certain contextual sense. "When we started talking about the clothes we were fascinated by the fact that to be fashionable on the East Coast [meant] going to Europe all the time," he said. "And Fitzgerald himself refers to made-up names for exotic European couturiers."

There is a potential downside in such movie-fashion industry partnerships. One need only look to the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" to see what can happen, for good and bad. That film earned Theoni V. Aldredge an Academy Award for costume design, put an up-and-coming fashion designer by the name of Ralph Lauren on the map for the sharp-looking suits, and placed a line of clothing based on "Gatsby" designs in Bloomingdale's. It also spawned a dust-up over who deserved credit for creating what.

"I totally understand that, and I really get it," Martin said when asked about the potential for friction where film meets fashion. "But I've just got to say that I have not felt that [tension] in any way. Look, the most important thing is to tell the story and make a great movie, and the more resources that you can have at your fingertips to ensure that the story you're trying to tell to the audience is clear, the better. ... I pursue these partnerships only if I think they're authentic. I am only grateful for the participation of all the people I've worked with, and I don't feel any rivalry because we all do something different."

"What [the partnerships] add is an enormous amount of production value," said Martin. "In the movie, quite simply, we had to represent very wealthy upper-class Americans, and that would require — even ordinarily without the help of Tiffany's — a certain kind of jewelry because that's the way people displayed their wealth back in the '20s. I think it just brings an authenticity to the social milieu of the Buchanans."

And, the film's director points out, it can be beneficial for those partnerships to extend beyond the multiplex.

"It's a win for everyone at every step [in the process]," said Luhrmann. "The audience goes to see the film, [and if] they want to have a summer of 'Gatsby,' they can continue to participate by accessing the clothing or jewelry that's inspired by it. That's great for marketing, but that's really great for the audience, because they can physically participate in the experience of 'Gatsby' beyond the cinema. It's a great circle, you know?"

adam.tschorn@latimes.com