Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is his personal love letter to Tinseltown, set during the seismic clash in 1969 of old and new cultures. And that posed a unique creative challenge for his go-to costume designer Arianne Phillips, who was unaccustomed to interweaving so much history and fiction in a Tarantino movie.
“It required its own unique process because here we have real life events, real people that are part of the culture — the Manson murders and Hollywood at that time [including Margot Robbie as slain actress Sharon Tate],” Phillips said. “And then at the center of that, we have these two fictional characters, Rick Dalton [Leonardo DiCaprio] and Cliff Booth [Brad Pitt], the cowboy actor and his stunt double. Also, this required a certain reportage feel, in that we really wanted to transport the audience and revisit Hollywood as it was in 1969.”
Naturally, like every other member of Team Tarantino, Phillips did her homework by revisiting the movies and TV shows of 1969 (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Easy Rider,” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” chief among them). And she discussed with Tarantino the amalgamation of Dalton and Booth, as those who made the transition from TV to movies and those who didn’t, from Steve McQueen to Edd “Kookie” Byrnes (“77 Sunset Strip”). But the most important discussions centered around the psychological makeups for the two characters: Dalton was past his prime and still trapped in the ’50s while Booth was more casual, open, and forward-thinking.
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“Quentin and I created a backstory of Rick taking clothes from his [successful] ‘Bounty Law’ western TV series,” said Phillips, who put DiCaprio through 22 costume changes. “His badass cowboy boots were part of the veneer.” Although Tarantino’s script didn’t specify a leather jacket, Phillips thought it was an important part of the director’s vernacular to include in the movie. “Leo and I both loved the leather jacket idea as a way of toughening Rick up,” she added. “In that meeting with Al Pacino’s agent in Musso & Frank, Rick didn’t want to wear an establishment suit. We also gave him a mock turtleneck. Quentin and I had these conversations of it being like a tie. There’s something very clean and dressed up about that. Putting a tie or scarf on Rick just seemed too comical.”
Dalton definitely gets put off stride when forced to look like a hippie cowboy for his guest spot on the “Lancer” TV series. But the rigorous shoot enables him at last to find his mojo. “Both Quentin and I agreed that tie-dyed and fringe were not going to be in this movie, with the exception of this fringe jacket,” Phillips said. “Making Rick a hippie becomes his worst nightmare. But it was great, like a stylized version of a cowboy, the Dennis Hopper way.”
It turned Dalton’s corny “Bounty Law” cowboy on its head. It was all part of exploring a character arc through Dalton’s wardrobe, especially when he confidently returns home after starring in a string of spaghetti westerns in Italy. “He’s got some money in his pocket and he bought clothes in Italy, bolstered by his success,” Phillips added. “He wears that Smothers Brothers neckerchief and leisure suit as we head into the ’70s.”
By contrast, Pitt’s Booth carries himself off with confidence, charm, and a Zen-like grace. And yet he possesses a menacing violent streak as well. Phillips appropriately dressed him in moccasins, a yellow Hawaiian shirt, and denim. “I loved the idea of him wearing moccasins, which would harken to the fact that he’s not out of touch, and I was also inspired by ‘Billy Jack,'” she said. “He dresses for comfort and has no one to impress.”
The Hawaiian shirt, though, was scripted as part of Tarantino’s vernacular, but the motif was up for interpretation, and so Phillips layered it with an Asian motif. But the denim had a dual purpose. “He wore denim, which was only worn as work wear during that time, except for the Manson family, which wore denim as part of their youth rebellion. But Cliff is an outsider and he went against the dress code at Musso’s by wearing his denim jeans and jacket at the bar.”
Meanwhile, dressing Robbie as Tate (who lives near Dalton in Benedict Canyon) offered a completely different process for Phillips. The costume designer was able to strike a balance between historical accuracy and creative license. “I did a lot of research on who she was and what she wore and learned about her life,” Phillips said. “Lucky for us, Deborah Tate, her sister, was a consultant. We got to see her wardrobe, and Quentin and I wanted to recreate a couple of costumes based on reference pictures. Other costumes were created to fit the movie. Deborah very generously allowed us to use some of Sharon’s jewelry, which Margot wore. They were simple costume pieces. As a Talisman, it was welcomed.
Tate personifies a sense of freedom and innocence and Phillips dressed Robbie frequently in yellow, including an ensemble at the Playboy Mansion inspired by something similar she wore to the “Rosemary’s Baby” premiere from Ossie Clark, a Swinging Sixties London fashion designer. On top of that she wore another Clark specialty: a long python printed coat.
However, Phillips dressed the actress in black turtleneck, white miniskirt, and white go-go boots for the bravura sequence in Westwood, where Tate drops off a hitchhiker, buys a copy of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” for husband Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), and then watches herself on screen in “The Wrecking Crew.” “This was based on research but also part of Quentin’s vernacular with his love of black-and-white,” she said.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is available on digital November 26 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD December 10.