Reimagining Gatsby

For M’s spring issue, WWD executive editor Bridget Foley wrote about Catherine Martin, who exulted in designing those beautiful shirts and that pink suit, as she and her husband, director Baz Luhrmann, rebooted “The Great Gatsby” for the 3D age. 

“Moved to tears.” Many of us invoke the phrase; some actually mean it. We might tear up at witnessing true nobility of action, nature’s grandeur, or the beauty of a piece of art.

Daisy Buchanan wept over shirts. Shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray…shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.

In one short, famous scene, F. Scott Fitzgerald telegraphs the intense power of fashion: The ability of clothes to reveal who we are either by accident of birth and other unavoidable circumstance or who we aspire to be by active pursuit. In extreme cases clothes may even suggest quality of character or depth of soul. Particularly in period fiction exploring social mores, a character’s style often reflects the core of his or her substance.

Case in point: “The Great Gatsby,” one of literature’s most poignant tellings of an individual’s deliberate appropriation of a way of life via the assumption of its symbols, sartorial and otherwise. Jay Gatsby wears a flashy pink suit; in attempting to impress Daisy, the object of his desire, he tosses around his expensive, fanciful shirts. Clothes not only matter to Gatsby, they perpetuate his illusion.

Given the enduring allure of Fitzgerald’s prose, our 21st century sense that the 1920s provided a threshold to modernity, and the mental imagery we all have (accurate or otherwise) of the decade’s fashion, the task of costuming Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated telling of “Gatsby” seems daunting. But Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s frequent collaborator and wife, who designed the film’s costumes and sets, describes the process in matter-of-fact terms.

She likens her role to that of a co-writer. “As a costume designer, you try to take the director’s interpretation of the material coupled with how the actors interpret it, and you try to tell the story better,” Martin says. Thus, purely aesthetic concerns take a backseat to a properly crafted sartorial narrative. “Nothing is ever really about what looks good. It’s all motivated by what we think that person would wear.” Nor does Martin consider for a moment matters beyond the story itself, whether, for example, her work might start a fashion trend, as happened with her lavish costuming of Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge!. That, Martin notes, is pure extra; in the world of filmmaking, the story is all, and her every decision as designer—sets, suits, dresses, hairstyles, every last shoe—has but one purpose, to help communicate the director’s telling of the story.

The first step in Martin’s process is investigation. Luhrmann, Martin says, is driven by his original material: “If it’s an original script, the original script and the research behind it. If it’s based on a book, he always starts with the original material, analyzing it in detail, questioning everything in the book, looking at the period it’s set in, trying to discover, like a detective, what a pink suit meant in 1922. Trying to find all of those details and having a very lively debate with all of those who are engaged in trying to visualize the film.”

Which is not to say Martin felt compelled to adhere verbatim to Fitzgerald’s fashion descriptions; not at all. She neither took lightly, nor shied away from, taking liberties. Rather, she examined her own motives for veering from the text—with Luhrmann’s godspeed. “Why would you change what the book refers to?” she muses. “What makes the story clearer? What makes the images more accessible to a modern audience? What takes the veil away? They are the sorts of questions that are really the role of clothes.” Set in 1922, “The Great Gatsby” was published in 1925. Luhrmann gave Martin leave to draw from the decade’s full, rich range of references, 1920 through 1929.

Once she had settled on a governing ethos for the film’s looks, Martin turned to some practical challenges, among them, dressing the background actors for the film’s two big party scenes. “Baz kept saying, ‘I just don’t want it to end up looking like gangsters and molls at a 21st birthday party,’” she says. “We talked a lot about how to get a bit more texture, edge, interest into these big party things.” To complete her realization, Martin turned to two very different giants of fashion, Prada for the women’s clothes, and Brooks Brothers for the men.

Prada’s involvement was almost accidental. Luhrmann and Miuccia Prada struck up a friendship when she made a suit for Leonardo DiCaprio in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. In preparing a film, Luhrmann does elaborate workshops—costume sessions, makeup tests—with the actors, even before they commit to their roles. For one workshop, Martin drew upon the friendship and borrowed some dresses from Prada. These included the remarkable crystal cage dress over a white slip from Spring 2010. Martin substituted a vintage pink slip, tied the crystals in front with a ribbon and fell in love. “We shot this gorgeous Russian girl, and she just looked incredible. From that moment on, I kept thinking that it has to be Daisy’s party dress. I became obsessed with it. I kept trying to think to myself, ‘Why, why, why?’”

A meeting with Prada followed during which the fashion goddess challenged the costume maven to explain why Prada’s clothes fit into the twenties, “a really engaging and fascinating debate,” Martin recalls. Martin told Prada that she sensed a “strange connection” between her and Luhrmann. “You both draw from historical references and, reverently and irreverently, quote them and deconstruct them and make them more modern than something that was created yesterday.”

Martin asked to scour Prada’s archives for existing looks that might time-travel to the twenties. In the end, Prada delivered 40 dresses, 20 for each of two party scenes, some of which Martin had tweaked. Martin used her own designs for the rest of the female partiers. Except for the crystal dazzler, she designed all of Daisy’s and Jordan’s clothes herself.

As for the menswear, with the pool of rentable men’s vintage suffering from overuse, Martin feared ending up with “all these sort of lumpy, mismatching black suits.” She wanted “really snappy, beautiful silhouettes…That’s not to say we didn’t use secondhand pieces. But I just didn’t want the world to have that look, you know, like we’ve gone through a secondhand shop and just bought everything and nothing quite fits.”

The Brooks Brothers pairing was a natural one; Fitzgerald  was consumed with matters of style. Patrician of bone structure, if not birth, in his famous Scribner’s book portrait, he looks as debonair as an Arrow Collar man. But his shirts were from Brooks Brothers. He associated the clothier, founded in New York in 1818, with breeding and arrival, and often identified his characters as dressing from the firm.

Martin approached Arthur Wayne, Brooks Brothers’ vice president of global public relations, and asked if the firm would make her designs for the background actors. The initial goal: eveningwear with that “crispness” essential to her vision. To that end, she and the Brooks Brothers studio varied their evening fabrics, using different shades and textures of black, thus allowing for visual separation of the actors in crowd scenes. Along the way, she took at least one significant historical liberty, including navy for some of the suits.

“In the thirties, the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, famously had a pair of dark blue tails,” Martin says. “He preferred them because he said you could much more clearly see the tailoring details when it was dark blue.”

In all, Brooks Brothers delivered nearly 600 background suits, both day and evening, as well as ties, tuxedo shirts, waistcoats, boaters, and caps, manufactured mostly in Brooklyn and tweaked by the Luhrmanns’ own tailor in Australia.

Martin was so pleased that she asked to extend the collaboration to the principal actors’ wardrobes. For his role of Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire proved curious, asking questions on everything from the Fitzgerald–Brooks Brothers connection to the selection of a particular striped tie. At one point, he questioned why a suit looked more late-19th century than 1920s. Martin’s knowledge of fashion history went into gear. “You’ve come back from the war, probably in 1919 because it took time to come back,” she told him. “You’re probably still wearing some of the clothes that you had before the war.

“People didn’t throw away their clothes…It was part of the thread [of the story] that he was less sophisticated than the others to some degree at the beginning of the story, and that he has a progression from being a Midwestern boy to a New York sophisticate.”

As for DiCaprio, even after years of friendship, his immersion in a role fascinates Martin. “The thing about Leo is that he is a friend and a collaborator. He wears a baseball cap and plays chess on his phone, the guy I know. Then you see him in character as Gatsby.”

That said, the most intense collaborations leave room for amusement. “We did have a few laughs over the fact that he was going to have to wear a pink suit,” Martin recalls. “He said to me, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Have you read the book?’”

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