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Costume Designer

"We wanted to show a progression in [Phylicia's] character."

The Costume Designer

Interview  |  Bio

The costume designer creates or acquires the clothing worn by the actors. She may do research to emulate historical fashions, or key original designs to the vision established by the production designer, sensitive to issues like the degree of realism or stylization that will be adhered to overall. A good costumer is a fashion designer with a gift for tailoring clothing to the personality and life situations of fictional characters. Quite often they are also good shoppers, trading upon a long mental list of antique clothing stores. The costumer needs to possess a fair amount of diplomatic ability, as well, since they will be working closely with actors who may be insecure about their appearance. Many actors regard their costumes as an extension of their performance by other means, and rightly so. In order to do its job in a narrative context the beauty of a costume is often much less important than how expressive it is. Costume design can be extremely complex on a film with a large cast of principals and extras; costumes worn by foreground players need to be much more detailed than those worn by background extras, for example. Expending time and energy on fine points that will not be visible on film can cost a production a great deal of time and money.


Dressing Elizabeth and Quilly

"In Elizabeth's case we wanted to have a progression in her character. She's just a normal Harlem lady of a certain age and she meets this young man and kind of blossoms. So we had to get from the plain house-dresses into the more dressy, prettier, happier clothes for later on."

"In the beginning I tried to make Quilly a bit eccentric but it didn't quite work, so we toned it down and she was just more modern than Elizabeth, a little freer with her clothes. They had different body types so what would be flattering on Debbie wouldn't necessarily be flattering on Phylicia. Some people look better in tailored clothes and some feel better in a ruffle. The actor has to feel comfortable in it personally and in the role as well."

Working With Limitations

"We always talked about color, and if the Production Designer was using a pattern I'd try to fit my patterns in. We don't have a lot of leeway on this kind of a quick, low-budget project. You can't screen-print the fabrics and have them woven in the forest by elves. You have to use what's available. You know the color and the mood and you try to look for fabrics and colors that suit that mood."

Capturing the Period

"Blacks and whites dressed pretty much the same in the '40s. Most of the black people didn't have as much money as most of the white people, so their clothes might have been a year or so out of date, or less expensive. There wasn't as much choice as there is now in terms of expression. If three-piece suits were in you wore three-piece suits. If dresses to the knee were in you wore dresses to the knee."

"We have several of these little dresses that wrap around and they would have a slit on each side and a tie on each side and we were trying to figure out why the tie never seemed to go through both slits. I finally realized that what you would do is you'd wrap it this way and when that side got dirty, you'd wrap it the other way, because they didn't have washing machines in the family room like we do nowadays."

"One of the things that we miss as costume designers that was really a wonderful fabric -- rayon, which was considered sort of a cheap imitation in those days. The heavyweight rayons that they made those shirts and the lovely dresses out of. It just has nice movement and you can't get that anymore."


Award-winning costume designer Marilyn Matthews was recently honored by the Costume Designers Guild for Excellence in Film with a nomination for The Truman Show. Ms Matthews worked with Peter Weir, the film's director, on three other notable films: Dead Poets Society, Green Card and Fearless.

Ms Matthews began her career in the Producer's Training Program. One of her first jobs was shopping for costumes on The Brady Bunch. She went on to win an Emmy (and, the following year, an Emmy nomination) for Individual Achievement in Costuming on the critically acclaimed TV series, Fame. Because of her creative work on Fame, she was accepted into both the Costume Designers Guild in Los Angeles and the United Scenic Artists in New York.

Ms Matthews later created costumes for several musical specials on stage and television. She has since been nominated twice for Emmys: once for the CBS Movie of the Week Stompin' At the Savoy, directed by Debbie Allen, and for the women's costumes on the pilot episode of thirtysomething.

Throughout her career Marilyn Matthews has had the good fortune to work on films by some of the most interesting directors in Hollywood, including Weir, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Louis Malle, John Huston, Elia Kazan, George Roy Hill, Peter Medak, Norman Jewison, Alfonso Arau, Alan Alda, Arthur Hiller, Frank Marshall and Jack Nicholson. Other film credits include: Congo and Picking Up the Pieces; assistant designer on Ghosts of Mississippi, Little Princess and Only You; and costume supervisor on Promises in the Dark, The Four Seasons, Zorro: The Gay Blade, Funny Farm and Arthur 2: On The Rocks.


Marilyn Matthews
Marilyn Matthews

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