For Paco Delgado, “Les Misérables” moves like a breathless action movie in the way it combines gritty drama with musical fantasy. That was director Tom Hooper’s cinematic vision for the operatic sing-through. So for the Spanish costume designer (“The Skin I Live In,” “Biutiful”), it’s all about capturing emotional states during this revolutionary epoch. From the Christ-like Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to the oppressive Javert (Russell Crowe) to the doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to the hopeful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), he uses color to convey their dramatic arcs, particularly the clash of red and blue. In fact, it’s a movie in which characters ultimately mirror themselves as well as one another.
“I read the Victor Hugo book, which is full of amazing references,” Delgado recalls. “He’s so realistic and so descriptive about how people lived and dressed and their environments. Then we looked at paintings of the period, especially Delacroix, Goya, and Ingres. I also researched at the Victoria and Albert in London, Le Musée du Louvre, and Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. At the Victoria and Albert they have collections of clothes as well as printed materials from the period.
“Then I discussed color and material with Eve Stewart, the production designer. She had a realistic approach along with a fantastic one. She created the basis for my work with a palette of brown and gray. But it’s about so many people suffering that I had to battle against the darkness of what I was thinking in terms of clothing. At the same time, because it was a musical, I had to do something with color. And I think that was the most challenging thing, really, to be honest.”
Yet for an epic production spanning more than 30 years (1815-1848) and requiring 2,200 outfits for nearly 4,000 performers, it begins and ends with Valjean. He rises from poverty to prosperity as part of a redemptive journey. Yet Jackman requested that he retain a bourgeois look throughout. “At the beginning, when he’s a convict, we used a lot of rough material for him,” Delgado explains. “And little by little, making him more sophisticated and more tailored using more color.
“One of the things Tom Hooper wanted for Jean Valjean was this idea that he was a man in search of a religious soul. For example, it’s a silly thing, but the coat that he wears in the mountains is a very old Tibetan monk’s coat made of very thick, old goat’s hair. And we cut them up to make a black coat for him. I think I always wanted him to have a monkish quality with his costume, except when he was mayor of the town. But he’s always wearing long coats, in a way like a monk’s habit.”
Meanwhile, because Javert is such a stiff, dogmatic, monolithic figure, Delgado dressed him a lot in wool, progressing from light to dark blue uniforms. He always thought of him from a vertical design perspective.
In contrast to Valjean, Fantine experiences a downward spiral going from factory worker to consumptive prostitute. “We wanted to show that she had dignity at the beginning and we decided to show her in a pink dress made of material with a lot of embroidery and hand work,” Delgado suggests. “Then little by little we wanted to show degradation in her clothes, that she was falling into this grave, making the costumes dirty and ripped and bleaching the color until she becomes a prostitute when we wanted to show something more dramatic with red.”
For the younger and more innocent Cosette, Delgado wanted to convey a blissful rite of passage. Therefore, she wears pretty dresses that aren’t too ornate. “At the beginning, we see her in a crude convent regale. Then we wanted to show her blossoming throughout the movie into a beautiful woman. And we had to be made aware that the only romantic side of the movie is Cosette’s love story.”
Still, Delgado was very much aware of the undercurrent of suffering in “Les Misérables.” Hugo was never far from his mind with his dramatic depiction of endless pain until revolution and liberty swept in. “It was a new way of thinking about freedom, and it is this combination of drama and musical that makes ‘Les Misérables’ so interesting.”
We’ll see how much the Academy agrees when the nominations are announced Thursday.
“Les Misérables” making of costumes featurette: