top of page

Elephant poop, Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt: Dressing the ‘Babylon’ cast has ups and downs

Jean Smart plays gossip columnist Elinor St. John, who wears spiky headdresses and beaded floor-length gowns in “Babylon,” starring Diego Calva, at left. (Scott Garfield)

What you think you know about 1920s fashion will change after you watch “Babylon,” the three-hour epic retelling of the nascent and outrageous Los Angeles film industry. Packed into a script double the average size is a movies-within-a-movie tale that begins in 1926 with six lead characters, 100-plus speaking parts and 250 cast members. The 7,000 costumes involved tend to speed past in a blink, especially in massive scenes of cocaine-fueled orgies, chaotic movie sets and deadly encounters.

“Babylon” costume designer Mary Zophres was determined to make every millisecond count. While the rest of America was baking sourdough bread during the pandemic lockdown, Zophres was immersed in historical research for the project, her career’s largest. Production was set to begin January 2020 but delayed until spring 2021. That gave her time to source internationally for materials to make costumes for medieval warriors, silent-movie stars and even elephant wranglers, who will variously be drenched in blood, vomit or poop, because, of course, this is Hollywood.

Zophres could have populated sets with beaded flapper dresses, cloche hats and other fashion cliches of the 1920s. However, writer-director Damien Chazelle gave his department heads a different take.

As Nellie LaRoy, Margot Robbie wears a skimpy red dress that’s little more than a scarf and tap pants, in a scene with Diego Calva. (Photo Credit: Scott Garfield/Scott Garfield)

“He said, ‘Be historically accurate, but find things that are surprising and don’t feel like 1920s costumes from a movie.’ That was a very helpful directive for us to have,” Zophres said. “It was like a challenge.”

A costume sketch by Mary Zophres. (Mary Zophres)

Her cellphone now contains an impressive archive of ‘20s movie posters, publicity stills and candid photos that reveal just how revealing the ‘20s were, with skimpy shorts, crop tops and high hemlines, a vast change from a decade earlier.

“Here are my overalls without anything underneath,” Zophres says, showing a modest ‘20s version of the pair she put on Margot Robbie, shirtless, to wrestle a rattlesnake. “I could back up every costume with research.”

Yet the images don’t always reveal exactly how the costume designers from a century ago translated historical time periods for the movies. As a modern designer aiming to interpret those antique interpretations, Zophres enlisted a worldwide army of costume experts and her remote control. By freeze-framing the silent version of “Robin Hood,” Zophres deduced that an open-weave knit coated with metallic paint stood in for chain mail. She copied the technique.

Read Full Article at Los Angeles Times

bottom of page