Winning an Academy Award in 2012 for his work on The Artist didn’t necessarily make costume designer Mark Bridges feel like he was a shoo-in for nominations from that point on. In fact, Bridges was surprised when he learned that his costume design for Inherent Vice got him nominated a second time. “This year, I was not expecting it,” he swears. “I didn’t even get up to listen to the nominations. I had been reading some projections the night before, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not on the list. I’m just not going to make the cut.’ ”
So Bridges slept through the announcements, and when he woke up an hour or two after the news had broken, he discovered a flood of congratulatory texts on his phone. “It never gets old. It’s thrilling,” says Bridges, whose body of work includes The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and Captain Phillips. “You always still think you’re just starting out in this business, but I guess at some point, you’re part of the gang, and it’s really fun.”
What makes this second Oscar nomination especially meaningful for Bridges is that it is for a film that he worked on with Paul Thomas Anderson–Bridges has done the costume design for all seven of the director’s films, ranging from Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood. “I really don’t think it’s that usual in this business,” says Bridges of his nearly 20-year-long collaboration with Anderson, noting, “I’m always happy and proud to be there to try to fulfill his vision as a director, but what’s really nice is that I get to express myself, too, in my work with him.”
Inherent Vice, which is based on Thomas Pynchon’s trippy noir novel set in Los Angeles in 1970, had Bridges outfitting a cast of diverse characters that ranged from hippies like the dope-fueled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) at the center of the story to more clean-cut, conservative types, including deputy district attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon).
Here, the costume designer talks to Co.Create about the thinking behind some of the looks from Inherent Vice as well as how he got into the business of dressing characters for film.
Co.Create: There is quite a range of styles in this film—from Doc’s hippie look to that purple velvet suit the dentist Dr. Blatnoyd [played by Martin Short] wore. It must have been so much fun for you to explore this era.
Bridges: It was. The film is more heavily influenced by the ’60s because it’s actually set in 1970, and there was so much going on then. There were a lot of people still holding on to ’60s looks—even the purple suit, the velvet suit, is kind of a language from the ’60s like Mr. Fish and Carnaby Street. By 1970, Dr. Blatnoyd was already out of style, but he was trying to recapture the days of five, six years earlier, and that was not groovy. It’s typical with older guys that maybe they want to hold on to their heyday a little too long.
It’s interesting to find out how much that suit really says about the character. How did you begin putting together the looks for this film? Did you start by reading Pynchon’s novel?
I did. This was the first time that Paul Thomas Anderson was adapting someone else’s work into a screenplay. So he just looked at me and said, ‘Read the book.’ And so I did and dutifully underlined every description of every character, any grain of information that I could get from Pynchon, and then I decided how to convey these people in that moment of time–Los Angeles, 1970, beach community.
Can you talk about dressing Doc? Actually, can you tell me specifically about the thinking behind him wearing that green jacket he had on a lot, those yellow pants and that embroidered shirt?
It’s sort of an easy beach look. All the language of that period is there. The sandals totally make him anti-establishment and also make him from the beach. The slim pants are from the ‘60s before flares came in. So he’s had those pants five, six years, and they look it, and they are his favorite pants. He’s not going to give them up just because flares started to appear.
The green jacket, the army jacket, was actually Paul’s idea. He had an image of Doc wearing that, and I liked it. It’s Vietnam War era, vintage, so it would have been something that Doc would have access to, and it’s kind of a cool twist on say, Humphrey Bogart’s detective trench coat. It’s sort of the hippie version of the trench coat.
And the embroidered Mexican shirt is beachy, southern California. It felt really lived in.
How about those cool sunglasses Doc had on?
The stop sign vintage glasses–that’s something we found in the research that was actually provided by props, but I was in on choosing them, and they really were something that some music people from that time had, but they’re also from the ’30s and ’40s, and Doc was a big fan of old movies and stuff, old Hollywood.
You mentioned that since it was 1970, a lot of the looks were carryovers from the 1960s. Is that the case with deputy district attorney Penny Kimball’s suit?
It is. You could have opened up a catalog from 1969, like a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog, and that idea would be right there. The only information that we get from Pynchon about deputy D.A. Penny Kimball is that she’s wearing a grey polyester business outfit with a very short skirt. So I had a lot of leeway there.
The one-piece bathing suit with the strategically-placed cut-outs worn by Sloane Wolfmann [played by Serena Scott Thomas] is something to see. Does the suit in the movie look like the one Pynchon described in the book, or did you use your imagination to create it?
The book described it as a bikini made out of the same fabric as the veil that she was wearing, and it pretty much was like, ‘We’re not doing that.’ I just felt like this was much more interesting. I mean, a black bikini is a black bikini. This was a little bit Frederick’s of Hollywood, a little bit Rudi Gernreich, and every bit of it is southern California 1969-1970.
If I could steal one piece of wardrobe from this movie, it would be Shasta Fey Hepworth’s [played by Katherine Waterston] knit orange dress.
It’s such a key piece in the film—it starts the film out. And, you know, it was very open what that first dress could be the first time we see Shasta. We tried a bunch of things, and this just seemed to straddle both worlds of hip and young, and she could still be in Hancock Park where she lives and go to Beverly Hills with Mickey Wolfmann and still be a hot little number.
It was just such a find and really specific to that moment in time. In summer of ’69, the summer of ’70, skirts were that short. It was acceptable pretty much everywhere except maybe the Baptist church. She could wear that down the street, and that would have been in vogue. She would have gotten stares or wolf whistles or whatever, but it was what you saw in fashion magazines. That’s how short the dresses were.
Also, what’s interesting about it, is it’s got kind of a high collar, so it’s all leg and no cleavage.
I found the dress in a vintage mall. Someone had obviously kept it very well for 45 years, probably in a hope chest in tissue paper. It had all its buttons and all its buckles, and I just dyed it a little tiny bit to make it a little more orange.
What an amazing find. Were you taking a risk by dyeing it?
Yeah. Well, I have a lot of experience in dyeing. When I was an assistant, I was into dyeing. I’m pretty fearless about that.
Can you talk about you needed to convey with the wardrobe for Owen Wilson’s alter ego, Coy Harlingen. He is rocking a suede fringe jacket and a mock neck top at one point. Was the jacket vintage?
It was a vintage find. He wears that when he’s in a very conservative group of people, and he’s supposed to be pretending that he’s some kind of rabble-rouser radical. So I just tried to use all the language that was anti-establishment, you know, fringe, bell-bottoms, sneakers.
I love those kind of funny mock neck t-shirts, which were, again, popular during a small window of time in the late ‘60s.
I had originally done a peace sign medallion on him, too, and some sunglasses, but we needed to recognize him really quickly [in that scene], so we got rid of the sunglasses.
When you are doing a period piece like this, do you have a preference when it comes to creating original clothing versus buying vintage pieces?
You know, it really depends, but Paul Thomas Anderson loves the patina of real clothes whether it was There Will Be Blood, whether it was Boogie Nights, whether it was The Master. He just loves that sort of it’s lived in look that doesn’t feel costume-y, and so that’s why I tend to try to go for the real things.
Sometimes you can’t. Penny needs to look good because there aren’t a lot of characters in the movie that look good. They’re all sort of slept-in hippies. So I’ll make it when I need it, when I can’t find it, like the bathing suit we made for this movie, the purple suit we made, Penny’s things we made–all those characters are the people who would have the fresh, unslept in clothes. Otherwise, I try to use the real things for Paul.
So was Doc in vintage from head to toe?
I don’t think there was anything that was new for Doc. Nothing. Maybe his straw beach fedora was a new thing that we found, but you always have a hard time finding the right hat.
When you talk about the thinking behind all of the clothes you either made or bought for the film, it’s easy to see how wardrobe helps actors get into character. Do you share all of your thoughts about the clothes with the actors before they start shooting?
Absolutely. The basic scenario is, they will show up for their fitting. I will have gotten their sizes. I will have been prepping and collecting and pulling things, and then we have this discussion when they’re in the room and the clothes are in the room just talking about the clothes.
Everybody is picturing something different, but I will pull out some pants or something and say, ‘Why don’t you slip these on, and let’s see how this looks?’ When they put them on, they’ll feel a different way, or they’ll walk a different way or something. And then I do my verbal explanation, and it’s a little bit of finessing, but we’re all working towards the same goal. We’re trying to figure out who the character is, and so, hopefully, this helps them.
That’s the sort of laboratory that I like to work in.
Are you one of those people who knew what you wanted to do since you were a kid, or did you figure out you wanted to be a costume designer as an adult?
You know, it’s just the melding of everything that I was naturally attracted to. I mean, even as a kid I was always into my outfits, like what I was going to wear to church. I would try things on the night before going to school. I always loved old movies, loved the glamour of whatever they were wearing, was into drawing and painting, and then it all kind of came together in this one job.
I was involved in high school theater, community theater, and then I went to undergraduate as a theater major and while there, the costume shop really became more and more a bigger part of my life. [Bridges earned a bachelor of arts degree from Stony Brook University and then a master of fine arts in design from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.)
The sketches you made of the costumes in Inherent Vice are so artful.
I was always sketching. Everybody does a play in high school, right? Well, I made a sketch of my costume and was like, ‘This is what the costume is going to be.’ I grew up Niagara Falls. It’s not like it’s terribly cosmopolitan there, so I don’t know where I got the idea to sketch a costume when I was 14.