Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
When costume designer Mark Bridges needed inspiration while working on Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, he would sometimes go to the National Portrait Gallery in London. With its impressive collection, the museum naturally could give him insight into historical flourishes for the 1950s-set period piece. But it also seemed like the kind of place that Reynolds Woodcock — the meticulous couturier played by the meticulous actor Daniel Day-Lewis — would go when he was in a similar position. “I imagine that might be something that Reynolds would do if he was stuck,” Bridges said in a New York hotel room earlier this month.
In the film, Reynolds is a man of great concentration who runs a lionized fashion house. He meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), and she becomes his muse, lover, and fan. “I never really liked myself,” she says. “But in his work I became perfect.” Phantom Thread is interested in the sly power dynamics that unfold between the couple, but to do so it must also create a collection of garments that lives up to Reynolds' reputation. Thus, it puts Bridges in the pink socks of its protagonist. He was not, however, toiling alone: The famously dedicated Day-Lewis had a voice in the creative process.
The two discussed what would be some of the trademarks of the Woodcock style — velvet, satin, and lace — and Bridges asked the actor to choose hues for items. “I think for an actor who works the way Daniel works, a sense of authorship, that his character would have created at least those fabrics and color choices, is there,” he says. “Then I have to go away and try to make it into an aesthetically pleasing garment. I have to make a film costume.”
Initial chatter about Anderson’s latest project tied it to Charles James, who was the subject of a Met retrospective in 2014. And indeed Anderson first approached Bridges, a longtime collaborator, by asking him if he knew about the designer. He obviously did. “My interest was piqued, and I started doing a lot of Charles James imagery, thinking that that’s what it was going to be,” Bridges recalls. “And then when I finally got the script I realized that it’s not Charles James, it’s its own fictitious character. He had kind of gone away from that Charles James idea and it’s a much broader thing and really set in the couture world of London.”
If anything is Jamesian about Reynolds, it’s his ego rather than his designs. By the 1950s James was in America, while the House of Woodcock is based in London, so its aesthetic is more in conversation with designers like John Cavanagh and Michael Sherard. Bridges used copies of British Vogue from the era and had an invaluable resource in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“We were so lucky to have access to real gowns from the period: Balenciaga, Balmain, Worth, Victor Stiebel, and even a Norman Hartnell,” he says. “They were all laid out on a table for us at the V&A in their archives and we were able to touch them and examine the insides and examine the manufacturing techniques and the handwork and appliques.” He took photos of the embroidery on a Balenciaga so he could do something similar. “It's the most subtle kind of glitter, so it's not all showy,” he says. He ticks off the references in a fashion show sequence: A caped suit that’s indebted to Charles Creed, another with a “trompe-l'oeil waistcoat” that riffs on Cavanagh. But he notes that Woodcock’s designs are self-referential as well. One maroon, full-skirted dress Alma wears winks to an outfit she dons earlier in the film, a sign of Reynolds’ personal touches.
Along with conversing with Day-Lewis, Bridges was also dedicated to Krieps, who was tasked with inhabiting the frocks. In the script, Anderson had written that Alma miraculously fits into everything that Reynolds makes for his clients — sort of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants of human beings — and Bridges says he discovered Krieps possesses that same quality. Almost every item he pulled for her to try on, she slid into.
The costumes were being built all throughout production, so he would often have to grab the Luxembourgian actress on her lunch break. “I would joke around like, ‘Ha ha, well, this is what it's like being married to a couturier, ha ha ha, lots of fittings,’” he says. “And try to get the heck out of there as fast as possible.” Krieps wanted to be abreast of the choices Bridges was making, and, suggested adding embroidery to a crucial red dress that Alma makes herself. “It was like, ‘Oh, what a great idea, because then it makes it more like Alma's authorship,’” he says. “It also makes it kind of loving hands at home than the slick couture world.”
Bridges had a team of a dozen people and outsourced some of the building to tailors in London. He searched for fabrics along with his two shoppers, two assistants, Day-Lewis, and Anderson. They found most of what was used in England, but also took a trip to Rome to collect materials, like a fanciful green taffeta employed in the dress for a wealthy, drunken socialite. Items also hailed from America and Léon in France. Bridges ultimately produced about 50 garments for the film, and many of them needed special treatment. A purple and pink number with Renaissance accents worn at the outset by a countess, Henrietta Harding, required a procession that was essentially funereal in nature. “I don’t think Henrietta’s dress ever went on a hanger; it was always in a stretcher,” he says. “Like a big sheet that everybody sort of carried like a big body coming in. It was so much fabric.”
In the film you see Reynolds furiously making adjustments before sending his models out to an audience. Behind the scenes of Phantom Thread there was a similarly frantic quality. “There were some days when people would be like, ‘Okay, we need Vicky on the set,’ and it would be like, ‘Sorry, we’re hooking up the 50th hook,’” he recalls. But that’s the wonder of this fashion: The elegance hides the strife.
At one point, Reynolds speaks about Flemish lace from the 1600s with such reverence it almost seems holy. But that lace represented quite an ordeal for Bridges. “One of the things was first of all was finding the fabric that would be rare enough to actual seem real to Daniel, have an energy of its own,” he explains. Through a dealer, he eventually located a piece that worked, but then had to keep track of it when it suddenly went missing for three days after production moved to the English countryside. “Everybody was like, ‘I don't have it, do you have it?’” he remembers, describing the chaos that unfolded. Was it in a blue box? Did set dressing have it? “We're putting notes on the call sheet, ‘Anybody seen the box of lace?’” he continues. “This was a hairy three days. Like, somebody else is going to tell Paul that that lace is missing.” Turns out it had somehow ended up in the dressing room of actress Lesley Manville, who plays Reynolds’ fastidious sister Cyril.
Crisis averted, it then could be put to use. And, sure enough, when it’s revealed in on a delicate lavender gown, it elicits a gasp: You’ve never seen a garment this gorgeous. The experience is religious.