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‘Harriet,’ ‘Little Women,’ and ‘Bombshell’: Female Empowerment Through Wardrobe

The politics of costumes was on display in this trio of films about free-spirited, heroic women.

A scene from “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo

A scene from “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo

Glen Wilson/Focus Features

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Female empowerment through wardrobe was creatively on display in “Harriet,” “Little Women,” and “Bombshell.” Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) was transformed into a 19th-century superhero; Saoirse Ronan’s proto-feminist author Jo March’s tomboy look made her a 19th century iconoclast; and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) became eye-catching free spirits who took down the Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) culture of sexual harassment at Fox News.

For Kasi Lemmons’ zeitgeist-grabbing biopic of Harriet Tubman, costume designer Paul Tazewell (“Hamilton”) wanted her “looks to not feel like we’d seen them before,” he said. “Where she starts, we definitely had to understand her as a slave. But then, as she recreates herself as modern to the period where she was from — and realizes herself as a free, black woman — there are [costuming] choices that I hoped would resonate in an emotional way to underscore the story.”

Tazewell studied Daguerreotypes of Tubman, but needed to invent the remainder of her wardrobe for the dangerous work of leading hundreds of slaves out of bondage on more than a dozen missions. As a mysterious male Moses, she was a master of disguise who confounded plantation owners. “I was drawn to these sepia-tone photographs that had been tinted,” said Tazewell. “It became this world of warm, neutrals that have pops of color. And that’s what Harriet became with her blue/gray linen dress with a stripe running through it. Very utilitarian but specific in its color.”

harriet

“Harriet”

Focus

But, as Harriet manages her incredible, initial escape, her dress gets progressively ruined through mud and water and ultimately destroyed. She makes a new life for herself, first wearing a striking green dress (she makes all of her clothes) and then cobbling together a costume that Tazewell and his team built in stages, echoing her confidence, including Union blue pants and jacket with brass buttons, a cap, or a top hat when she leads a troop of Buffalo Soldiers into battle in a pale blue coat. There’s also a gorgeous navy blue gown.

“The first look is a marriage of both male and female clothing of the period, pieces that she could access but function in a better way than a huge petticoat and a fine dress,” said Tazewell. Also, with the silhouette, it makes her a striking figure that becomes very powerful. Cynthia Erivo, with her understanding of clothing, made it even more delightful because she got it and could embody the Harriet we were trying to show.”

Little Women

“Little Women”

Wilson Webb/© 2019 CTMG, Inc.

On a literary adventure to become a successful writer and independent New England woman in the post-Civil War era, Jo March also makes a striking, androgynous figure in Greta Gerwig’s reinterpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless “Little Women.” However, as part of her rite of passage, Jo must confront the shadow of her childhood. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran decided to distinguish the bohemian Jo from her sisters (Emma Watson’s Meg, Eliza Scanlen’s Beth, and Florence Pugh’s Amy) as both children and adults. “It was a balancing act to convey the Victorian period in general and how distinct these radical girls were,” she said. “And each girl had around a dozen costume changes.”

Ronan eschewed corsets as Jo, wearing mainly red and indigo. Much of Gerwig and Durran’s inspiration came from Winslow Homer paintings (particularly the hat from “High Tide”). But, as an aspiring writer, Jo switched to wearing male clothing, which suited her more comfortable, masculine nature. She wears a black jacket, tie, and boots, and, eventually a hat when dashing to the office of her publisher (Tracy Letts) in New York. “It was like she was appropriating the space at the end when taking ownership of her book,” said Durran.

What’s more, Gerwig and Durran came up the radical idea of having Jo and her best friend, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), share clothes. “The idea that Jo could wear Laurie’s waistcoat or vice versa or that they could have this fluid identity between them when they were younger, I think, benefited their relationship,” she added. “There was a whole transformative aspect to it. “She looks back to the past as part of her golden, memory years.”

"Bombshell"

“Bombshell”

Lionsgate

With Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” Kelly, Carlson, and Pospisil were distinguished by their style of dress and color palette by costume designer Colleen Atwood. She had plenty of photographic and video reference to match for the real life Kelly and Carlson (especially when they were on-camera), but as Pospisil was a composite of several women, she obviously had much more creative license. “Gretchen wore bright pink and blue, a perky, more feminine flavor to what was endemic at Fox News,” she said. “I patterned her at-home look and post-Fox News look from an interview where she was more suburban with a beautiful, cream-colored palette.”

By contrast, Kelly was less colorful off-screen than on–under the cameras she wore super bright colors. “She wore a lot of the more muted colors, so I went in that direction to distinguish the two of them: black, navy blue, a quieter, more chic style,” Atwood said. “Megyn is casual in her actual life in blazer, jeans, or a robe.”

Pospisil, meanwhile, who hailed from Florida, started off with a light look and became more fashionable as she progressed at Fox News. “I defined her as a journey, going from softer and lighter fabrics and pale pinks and blues, into more structured, stricter fabrics in the Fox world, with black and white dresses,” added Atwood. But for her tense, humiliating audition with Ailes, she wore a nude and black dress.

“I don’t do color theory,” Atwood said. “I go with a vibe I get from what I want to do. It was about the humanity of these people within the story.”

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