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The movie "Dreamgirls" is not up for Best Picture Oscar this Sunday, but its costumes are up for an Oscar. So are the outfits in "The Devil Wears Prada", "The Queen" and "Marie Antoinette." NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes us now to the world of the costume designer, and she begins at a rental and storage facility in north Hollywood that's clothed movies since "Birth of a Nation."

SUSAN STAMBERG: We're walking past racks and racks of hats, fedoras - of women's hats with feathers, and it's got that smell of old clothes.

Miles and miles of belts, pants, shirts, dresses, coat and boots from every century and nation. You could dress a cast of thousands here, and they do, at Western Costume Company.

Mr. EDDIE MARKS (President, Western Costume Company): We have eight miles of clothes.

STAMBERG: Eddie Marks is president of Western.

Mr. MARKS: I stopped counting at 3,825,000.

STAMBERG: And how many movies do you think this place has clad?

Mr. MARKS: We probably do about 120 movies a year.

Ms. JULIE WEISS (Costume Designer): Look at all of this fringe, and you wonder in there, is Fess Parker hiding somewhere?

STAMBERG: Julie Weiss brought us to Western Costume. She designed the clothes for "American Beauty", "Bobby", "Frida" - she got an Oscar nomination for that one, also for "12 Monkeys". Here she can buy vintage fabric, hire sewers, milliners, do costume fittings in dressing rooms or on mannequins that duplicate a star's measurements.

Ms. WEISS: Here's Audrey Hepburn.

STAMBERG: These are all mannequins you're pulling out?

Ms. WEISS: Yes.

STAMBERG: Look how tiny - look at this tininess.

Ms. WEISS: Yeah. Isn't she amazing?

STAMBERG: Julie Weiss never designed for Audrey Hepburn, but she did costumes for Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Annette Bening and for Sharon Stone and Lindsay Lohan in the film "Bobby".

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Lohan comes into Stone's beauty salon. Stone wears a pink dress that's a bit tight under her white salon coat. She has big hair. It's 1968. Lohan sits down for a manicure:

(Soundbite of movie, "Bobby")

Ms. SHARON STONE (Actress): (as Miriam) Love or money?

Ms. LINDSAY LOHAN (Actress): (as Diane) Pardon me?

Ms. STONE: (as Miriam) The reason you're getting married. Love or money?

Ms. LOHAN: (as Diane) I'm saving a life.

Ms. STONE: (as Miriam) What color is your dress?

Ms. LOHAN: (as Diane) Lavender.

STAMBERG: Designer Julie Weiss chose lavender plaid organza for Lindsay Lohan. A tight bodice with smocking, full skirt - not a typical wedding dress, but this is a marriage of compassion, not passion. Lohan is marrying a friend to keep him from being sent to Vietnam.

Ms. WEISS: It was something that she did to help someone stay out of a war. So that's the moment that a costume can become a wish. You place her in a dress she had, probably a prom dress.

STAMBERG: Weiss had to made several copies of this dress. When we first see it, Lohan is about to marry, but the ceremony is at the hotel where Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. The dress gets spattered with blood. So multiple versions were needed in case there were retakes. Just one of the costume designer's challenges.

Julie Weiss says script cues are never as easy as woman enters in lavender dress.

Ms. WEISS: It's woman enters into ballroom, trips over cart, there's champagne everywhere, 75-member orchestra, the Chihuahua - which you don't know if that's a props or costume - enters. These things happen.

STAMBERG: And Julie Weiss has to dress them all, maybe even the Chihuahua.

In her studio in Santa Monica, costumes Julie Weiss designed hang ready for browsing.

Ms. WEISS: This brown cape was worn by Ben Affleck in "Hollywoodland".

STAMBERG: Affleck's character plays Superman on black and white television. He and his girlfriend hate the TV outfit.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hollywoodland")

Ms. DIANE LANE (Actor): (as Toni Mannix) Why is it so drab?

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (as George Reeves) Look like a damn fool.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Spanish)

STAMBERG: There was nothing drab about the costumes Weiss designed for Salma Hayek in "Frida", the biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Julie took her color cues from Frida's palette - vivid fuchsia, deep red, tropical green. For a tango scene, Julie copied a dress from one of the Kahlo's self-portraits.

Ms. WEISS: But it didn't work.

STAMBERG: Why?

Ms. WEISS: Because it should've stayed on the painting. There was nothing about it that made her want to move. There was another…

STAMBERG: You mean, once you put it on?

Ms. WEISS: It was okay, but it - you couldn't feel it. You couldn't hear the music in the dress.

STAMBERG: So what'd you do?

Ms. WEISS: There was another dress, and we cut it down. We cut it up. And we watched the dance and we made sure that when she moved, the dress moved.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Frida's clothes brightened mannequins in Julie's studio. The place is like the nest of an exotic bird - a clutter of lace, ribbons, bits of cloth, stuffed toy monkeys for some reason, and stacks of research books. Also, scripts, which she pours over, imagining designs as she reads.

Ms. WEISS: Our responsibility is to find out why they're getting dressed that day and who they're getting dressed for.

STAMBERG: Julie Weiss has spent 30 years putting together clothes that reflect character. She's most happy when she finds a forgotten cigarette butt in a trouser cuff or a lipstick-stained collar. It means the clothes have a story.

Ms. WEISS: And that's what makes it alive. What's in the pockets. And I'm convinced when you're having that fitting with an actor and they understand that, you begin with a costume, and then it ends up as clothing.

STAMBERG: Scarlett O'Hara began with green velvet draperies and turned them into a dress to seduce Rhett Butler. Stanley Kowalski's torn T-shirt seduced his wife and her sister.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (as Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella.

STAMBERG: Clothes help tell stories. If there's some movie that you wished you'd had the chance to design the costumes for?

Ms. WEISS: Oh my goodness. In my eulogy, I would probably say I wish it had been "Gone With the Wind". But the truth is, it probably would've been "African Queen". It would've been "Bad Day at Black Rock", "High Noon". I need the dirt. I need the history of the pieces.

STAMBERG: Julie Weiss just finished the costumes for "Blades of Glory", a comedy about competitive ice-skating - spangles, feathers, rhinestones, glitter, all worn by Will Ferrell. Maybe next time there'll be dirt.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can see the dresses that Julie Weiss designed for Frida Kahlo in the movie at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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