The Stories Behind La La Land's Modern Classic Costumes

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The Stories Behind La La Land's Modern Classic Costumes

The technicolour world of La La Land is an instantly memorable one, and that's in no small part thanks to Mary Zophres' Oscar-nominated costume designs, which bring the classic glamour of director Damien Chazelle's Hollywood inspirations to modern Los Angeles.

'We wanted the film to have one foot in the contemporary world and one foot in the nostalgia of Old Hollywood,' says Zophres, whose long-term creative partnership with the Coen Brothers has previously seen her work on projects as diverse as O Brother Where Art Though and Hail! Caesar. Appropriately enough for a film that's in love with film, to nail this particular aesthetic, plenty of screen time was required. 'Damien had cut together a sort of montage, of small moments from the movies that had inspired him,' she explains, 'so I made a list of what was on that and made sure to watch everything. Damien had specified that there were several pivotal films, three by [French director] Jacques Demy: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and Lola. Then there were MGM technicolour musicals, contemporary fashion magazines, even candid shots of people on the street...'

From her Old Hollywood reference points to the unexpectedly humble origins of Emma Stone's instantly iconic yellow dress, Mary explains the stories behind some of the films best-loved costumes below...

The hilltop party: the colour-block dresses

'We had a meeting very early on with Damien where we went through the script page by page, and we decided on the colours for scenes and for costumes during that. We knew that the first dress was going to be blue. La La Land is a contemporary film, so as well as the MGM musicals, I looked at fashion magazines, photos on Flickr, even Facebook albums to pin down what an LA party looks like. Then Damien and I decided to make the parties more stylised: the hilltop party was inspired by Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2014) and by a dance sequence in Sweet Charity (1969). We wanted the film to have one foot in the contemporary world and one foot in the nostalgia of Old Hollywood: it still has a Hollywood feel, just without the plunging necklines you might find today. We found a very simple A-line pattern and ended up making all the dresses from scratch.'

La La Land yellow: the tap dancing dress

'I had yellow stuck in my head because I’d been looking at red carpet photos of Emma and there was a red carpet dress by Versace that she’d worn a few years back, in this beautiful canary yellow. That was my evidence to Damien [Chazelle] that Emma could pull off that colour, because not many people do. Knowing what looks good on Emma, I thought geometric lines would work well around her face, which is why we came up with a square neckline then scooped it down at the back. I found a polyester jersey in the right shade at Jo-Ann’s, which is a very inexpensive fabric store in the States, so we made a first dress out of that. It moved beautifully, so then I was like, “Let’s just use this!” Then we ended up painting the print straight onto it: it was inspired by a vintage piece of fabric, with the flowers almost like a Matisse painting. What’s funny is that I was in Jo-Ann’s the other day and they still have it: you can still buy La La Land yellow in the poly-jersey aisle…'

The planetarium: Mia's green dress

'The only time that a specific colour is mentioned in the script for Mia is in the planetarium scene, where the directions say that she has a green dress on. That was inspired by a jade green dress that Judy Garland wears in her version of A Star Is Born (1954). When I read the script, I immediately thought of that dress, and when I met with Damien for the first time, it turned out that we were both thinking the same thing. It wasn’t so much the look of the dress as the beautiful colour. I actually got fan mail from people saying they loved the dress, wanting to know if there were patterns to make it, which makes me so happy. None of us had any idea that the film was going to be as popular as it was: we'd see these incredible sequences, shot all in one and say "This is either going to be the greatest movie, or people will be like, "What were you thinking?""

Sebastian's throwback style

'I already knew both Emma and Ryan [from 2013’s Gangster Squad] which was certainly an advantage: as soon as I started sketching, I knew what would look good on them both. For Ryan's character Sebastian, I was very much inspired by Marc Michel, who is the male lead in Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961). I watched that film again when I was preparing for La La Land and I was really taken by him: he just looked so effortlessly sexy, and I thought, ‘this could be now or it could have been in 1950.’ It’s just a timeless silhouette, and that’s what Damien [Chazelle] could see Sebastian wearing. He’s not the kind of guy who goes around in jeans and a T-shirt; his world is one where you present yourself in a certain way. I’ve been working on Damien’s next movie First Man, which is about Neil Armstrong and the lead up to the first trip to the Moon, with Ryan as Armstrong; it couldn’t be more different to La La Land.'

Five years later: Mia's monochrome wardrobe

'When the film jumps forward five years, the first dress we see Mia in is white with black lace, so things definitely become a little more monochromatic. There’s a maturity there: we wanted her final look to feel a bit more serious and more grown-up, but it was still believable to me that the same character could be wearing [the black halter dress]. I had a photo of Catherine Deneuve in a dark halter dress with a cross strap at the back, and she’s looking over her shoulder. I showed that reference photo to Damien for the ‘Five Years Later’ look and he loved it, too, so we decided that all black would be appropriate there. Mia starts off with colour and that peaks at the planetarium; then when her and Sebastian aren’t seeing each other and the light goes out of their relationship, the movie becomes more monochrome.'

Epilogue: the white 'what if?' dress

'In the final epilogue, when they’re thinking ‘What if we stayed together?’ there’s a white dress that Emma wears in the Paris fantasy sequence. The waltz is a very obvious reference to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, who made such a brilliant [screen] partnership. There’s a dress that Ginger wears in Swing Time (1936) that just looks so fluid: it specifically has a very 1930s feel to it, but the way the dress moves feels like it has an anti-gravity effect. I was trying to get that same effect with the dress we made for Emma, which is actually my favourite. All the dresses that Mia wears were designed with dance in mind. As we get progressively further into the film, the volume in the skirts gets bigger and bigger: the white dress’s skirt wasn’t just a whole circle, it was a circle and a half.'

LA LA LAND is available on Digital Download now and Blu-ray, Limited Edition Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray & DVD on May 15th

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