Film Week: Creating costumes for Phantom Thread

By Rachael Steven

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread transports viewers to 1950s London. It is a compelling glimpse inside the world of Reynolds Woodcock – a celebrated fashion designer who dresses debutantes and wealthy wives in lavish gowns and skirt suits.

Woodcock is a neurotic perfectionist: he wears only pink socks, detests noise at breakfast and is always immaculately dressed. The film follows his twisted relationship with a young woman named Alma, who moves into his Georgian mansion after she meets him while working at a seaside B&B. It’s a suspenseful, dark and funny tale that is part fashion film and part Gothic fairytale.

For costume designer Mark Bridges, the film presented some interesting challenges. Bridges is used to working with directors to help tell a story through clothes. He has collaborated with Anderson on several films over the past 22 years – including Inherent Vice, The Master and There Will Be Blood – and won an Oscar for his work on The Artist. He was also costume designer on Boogie Nights. But for Phantom Thread, he had to delve into the world of couture tailoring and craft a distinct aesthetic for a fictional designer.

Bridges began researching costumes long before filming began: “Having worked with Paul for 22 years, I get the script very early on. As soon as he’s got something to show people, I’m one of the first who gets to read it and give him some feedback,” he explains. He then came up with some rough ideas based on the script and met with Anderson to discuss them. Anderson brought with him some things that inspired him while writing the film such as photographs and colours. “Colour is very important [to Anderson],” adds Bridges.

This was followed by 12 to 18 months of “back and forth” between Bridges and Anderson before shooting began, where Bridges would send Anderson different outfits or styles that might be suitable for certain scenes in the script. This helps Bridges build up a picture of each character’s style and an idea of how clothes can be used to help tell the story or further our understanding of that character.

Bridges also worked closely with Daniel Day-Lewis (who is known for his method acting), visiting Saville Row tailors and listening to his ideas on the kind of things that Woodcock would most likely wear. “That was really enlightening to get his feedback on things – particularly as it’s set in London and in a world and social class that he knows,” adds Bridges.

Working on any film requires a vast amount of preparation and Bridges says his process usually begins with studying fabric samples and existing clothes. “I do an enormous amount of prep before we start official pre-production, gathering tear sheets and swatches and a few sketches and things, but thats all kind of abstract for me until I start actually putting my hands on clothes,” he explains.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread. Lead image (top): Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, who plays Alma

“Here in Los Angeles, we have several enormous costume houses that you can hire clothes from … so I just went through lots of period costumes and woollens and it’s another way for me to wrap my head around what this movie is and what it will look like,” he continues. “I might be going through 1,000 dresses and maybe six of them will speak to me…. I’ll think, ‘I know we have some scenes in the country, so here’s an incredible twinset from the 50s that I can use on Alma’, and I’ll just start collecting all of these things that seem to speak to me – that make me think, ‘this could be our movie’.”

Bridges also visited London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to learn more about dressmaking techniques and fabrics. On his visit he met two volunteers – Joan Emily Brown and Sue Clarke – who had worked for couturiers in London. The pair appear in the film as seamstresses Nana and Biddy and were on hand to provide advice on tailoring during filming and production.

The film was shot in London – Woodcock’s house is a Georgian Mansion in Fitzroy Square – and Bridges set up a costume studio in the former Central Saint Martins building in Holborn to produce clothes. Most of the outfits seen in the film were made from scratch: “I did think originally that we were going to use a lot more real vintage clothes, but since the story is that these clothes have just rolled out of the workroom, we couldn’t really use 60-year-old garments, no matter how well they’d been kept,” explains Bridges.

Woodcock and Alma at a New Year’s eve party

Bridges visited high-end hire companies in Paris and fabric shops in Rome to gather inspiration for prototypes and recruited a team of people from the UK to make the clothes.

Many of the outfits featured Phantom Thread were made to look as if they had been created by Woodcock. Over the course of the film we see him creating bespoke dresses for clients and designs for a Spring fashion show as well as some lavish outfits for Alma.

Woodcock’s creations had to have an English aesthetic and reflect the darkness of his character. This informed many of the colour and fabric choices for garments – the Spring fashion show includes a red velvet dress embroidered with lace and a blue and black floral dress, a much darker colour palette than you might expect to find in a Spring collection.

“This is where I had to step into another designer’s shoes,” explains Bridges. “Paul had requested that it be a Spring fashion show so I had to think ‘what does that mean in reference to Reynolds Woodcock, who is a rather artistic and kind of dark character? His spring is not the viewer’s Spring, it’s not Baliencaga or a French spring…. These choices are made to tell that story,” he explains.

Vicky Krieps as Alma. The dresses in the film were created using traditional couture techniques

Many of the clothes seen in the film were inspired by historical garments – a nod to the fact that Reynolds learned his trade from his mother (he created her wedding dress aged just 16).

“The fabrics and colours Reynolds uses – like laces and satins and velvets – it’s almost old fashioned in a way,” says Bridges. “You wonder how many more years Reynolds’ view of the world and creating garments like that is going to last because in the late 50s, it all became very straight and simple and unadorned. There was still luxury, but it was a very different kind of luxury.”

Phantom Thread is a film where every aspect has been carefully considered to create a very particular world. Jonny Greenwood’s Oscar-nominated score captures both the film’s glamour and suspense and there’s something almost fairytale like about the cinematography – from shots of a vintage car rushing through country roads at dusk to scenes set on bleak hillsides.

Bridges worked closely with the film’s art departments and production designers as well as Anderson and says the production design would often inspire costumes and vice versa. “We were all in the same building and had each other on speed dial so we could stay in touch and I think that really shows. There’s quite a unified look and feel to the film,” he adds.

What’s striking about the costumes in Phantom Thread is not just how well they match the look and feel of the film but how much they tell us about the characters – particularly Woodcock. Bridges’ attention to detail – and his determination to create costumes that were authentic to the period – help deepen our understanding of the film’s characters and the world they inhabit and add significantly add to its power. It’s little surprise that Bridges has been nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA for his work on the film.

Krieps and Day-Lewis in another scene from Phantom Thread. Bridges says most of the clothes featured in the film were made from scratch

“What I do is really inspired by serving the script and the director,” he says. “I take all of my cues from a line or a situation – for example a line about how Reynolds mother taught him his craft … and it directs me. Those choices are made to tell that story.”

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