Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is the sort of maximalist movie where every frame teems with excess, so it’s only fitting that its costumes be outrageous in both their number and designs. Between the cast of over a hundred speaking roles and the abundance of extras, costume designer Mary Zophres estimates that she and her department created around 7,000 costumes, which is even more impressive when one considers the meticulous detail that went into every piece of clothing. Nowhere did this approach pay more dividends — both in glamour and character development — than with Jean Smart’s brutally honest gossip columnist Elinor St. John. A close look at her costumes reveals the thought and care that, when multiplied by hundreds of cast members, made “Babylon” the most sartorially spectacular film of 2022 and Zophres an Oscar nominee for best costume design.
“People don’t realize how important costumes are to creating a character,” Smart told IndieWire. “Clothing completely changes the way you feel and brings out different parts of your personality.” Smart and Zophres collaborated closely on Elinor St. John’s look, taking inspiration from Hollywood gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, and particularly Elinor Glyn, a journalist and screenwriter who popularized the concept of the “It Girl” as defined by Clara Bow (a key reference point for Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy). Zophres constructs a detailed biography for each character to motivate their fashion choices, and this is where Glyn’s story was particularly helpful. “The real Elinor Glyn’s sister was a couturier,” Zophres told IndieWire. “So in my backstory, Elinor’s sister designs her clothes for her.”
Because Elinor St. John is a little older than many of the characters in “Babylon,” she sees herself both as a survivor and as someone who does not want to be forgotten or shoved aside, qualities that find their way into how she presents herself. “She hit her stride maybe 20 years prior,” Zophres said. “That’s when she found her look — and she’s sticking to it.” Although she moves through a world teeming with glamorous movie stars, Elinor is determined to avoid fading into the woodwork: “She wants to be seen, and she wants to stand out almost as much as the actors do.” When Elinor sits with other journalists to watch the “Singin’ in the Rain” musical number being filmed, for example, she pops in the frame alongside her colleagues’ muted tones. “All the other press is very conservatively dressed, but there she is in a beautiful orange cut velvet coat dress.”
Like every other costume and hat Elinor wears in the film, that outfit was built from scratch by Zophres and her collaborators. “We cobbled it together with vintage fabric and dye to make a matching hat,” Zophres said. “All of her clothes were handmade from head to toe and conceptualized by where she would be.” For the opening party scene in which Elinor hobnobs with movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and other celebrities, Zophres knew Elinor would want to make a statement and dressed her accordingly. “She’s kind of channeling Cher there with this outrageous hand-beaded headpiece and matching dress. Even in a place with all this outrageousness going on, she stands out in a great way.”
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Jack Conrad takes Elinor by surprise when he storms into her home to confront her about an article she has written — a confrontation that leads to Elinor sharing some painful truths with Jack about his career and its demise. It’s the one scene in the movie where Elinor is not dressed to be seen since she didn’t know Jack was coming, yet she still looks fabulous. “He does catch her off guard, but she still has a great amount of elegance,” Zophres said. “What she’s wearing is a two-piece pajama set — that’s what they called them, but they weren’t necessarily what you wore to bed. I found photos in my research of people wearing them out on the street. The idea was that at home, she would be wearing something a little more comfortable, but she’s never a messy person. Even when she’s writing in the privacy of her own home, she’s very put together.”
Watching Zophres create the costumes made “Babylon” one of the most pleasurable experiences of Smart’s career. “I had been dying to do a period piece for a while, and thank God this one had a wonderful budget for the most spectacular custom-made dresses and coats,” Smart said, noting that she hadn’t been able to talk with a costume designer in such detail since her early days performing Shakespeare on stage. “It’s a fun part of the job, and you don’t get to do it that often, especially with someone like Mary, who is so artistic. She’s kind of a genius.”
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