For costume designer Mark Bridges, it’s always an adventure working with Paul Thomas Anderson. But “Phantom Thread,” their eighth collaboration, represented a meta challenge: It was a movie about his craft.
But Bridges admits that there’s a big difference between fashion and costume design. “I’m there to facilitate an actor’s performance and fulfill the vision of a director,” he said.
And in the case of “Phantom Thread,” about the world of London haute couture in the 1950s, it’s a movie about the fashion designer as auteur. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the eccentric and obsessive Reynolds Woodcock, whose world is turned upside down when he falls for Eastern European waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). But imagine if “Rebecca’s” Joan Fontaine struck back at Laurence Olivier with sly subversion, exorcising his demons while bringing them closer together. That’s what Anderson did with his twisted and witty love story.
Resurrecting London Couture of the 1950s
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For Bridges, it was an opportunity to explore celebrity designers Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior along with London staples Hardy Amies, John Cavanagh, Charles Creed, Norman Hartnell, and Digby Morton. The trick was finding the right fit for the fictional Woodcock. “What were the requirements? What were all those British guys doing? And how did Reynolds fit into that?,” said Bridges, who won an Oscar for “The Artist.”
Bridges did intense research at the Victoria and Albert Museum (he discovered that ’50s London glorified woolen suits), watched movies such as “Maytime in Mayfair,” a 1949 British musical comedy about Mayfair’s haute couture ladies’ fashions, and went clothes shopping with Day-Lewis.
“He’s very involved and knows that world so well,” Bridges said. “He grew up in a level of London [Kensington] where gentlemen were concerned about their clothes, shopped well, and always looked good because they were well made. And this is the kind of man that Reynolds was. It was really fun for me to work with him on that because I was exposed to Savile Row tailoring at Anderson & Sheppard for the first time. Or some of the finest shoe making at [G.J.] Cleverley at the Royal Arcade, where he had his shoes made.”
In the end, director, star, and costume designer made Woodcock an iconoclastic, artistically minded London designer. “Paul was interested in Daniel as Reynolds having a sense of authorship,” said Bridges. “We all sat down one day and decided it was rich fabrics, a heavy dose of lace, rich colors, and British woolens. Those were the parameters.”
Naturally, the actor had a hand in dressing his character. He chose lots of lavender (including an eye-catching bow tie) and some offbeat choices such as a windowpane-check jacket and blue herringbone wool coat. This took Anderson & Sheppard enjoyably out of its comfort zone with raglan sleeves and big patch pockets.
The House of Woodcock
Bridges and his team created 50 garments for the House of Woodcock, run by Reynolds and his domineering sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). “There were normal clothes as well as statement pieces,” Bridges said. ” It was fun deciding the millinery and the tricks of his trade. He didn’t have a pure line of clothes. It was more inspirational. He made garments for special clients and then modified them for his fashion show.”
When Reynolds first meets Alma in the country restaurant, she wears a plum dress. “I think we wanted to do something that felt unusually modern and its very clean shape plays up her bone structure,” said Bridges. “It reveals that she inspired him.”
Photo : Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
The first dress Reynolds makes for Alma is striking in lavender. “We had gone to the Victorian Albert for some research and there was this Balenciaga gown we looked at that had this incredible embroidery on it, all hand done, and the sequins were trapped underneath the stitching for a really subtle glitter,” Bridges said.
“And we had our embroiderer recreate that by hand on the bodice of that dress, too. We were shooting in winter and I knew she needed some kind of a jacket and we devised a shaped jacket with as few seams as possible so it comes out very sculptural. And then I had opera gloves to match the brown accent lining. That’s a real couture touch, too.”
The lavender silk dress for Alma’s photo shoot held greater significance for Reynolds because it grew out of an antique piece of lace. Although Anderson had written in the script that the heirloom was satin, Bridges convinced him that lace was more precious. “That really was 17th-century Flemish lace that we found a piece of,” he added. “Everybody held their breath when they knew we had to cut into it.”
This evolved into the lavender and maroon dress and cape that Reynolds made for Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee). “As we sat down, Paul would doodle a little sketch of Henrietta’s dress and he chose the colors and put the two fabrics together,” Bridges said. “It was up to me and my head cutter to figure out how the little stick drawing becomes a workable, opulent, society garment.”
It was all part of making Reynolds a cut above the other mid-century London fashion designers. He wasn’t chic, but he had a style all his own.