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The ‘Mamma Mia!’ Costume Designer Explains How to Dress Like Young Donna

In case you, too, feel the urge to recreate the ’70s fashions in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

Donna wears a yellow shirt and denim overalls.
Young Donna in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
Photo: Universal Pictures

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I’m not a film critic, but I’m here to tell you without a speck of irony that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a perfect movie. Both a sequel and a prequel to Mamma Mia!, the 2008 film adaptation of the hit Broadway show, it’s a romp through beautiful, sparklingly sunny Greece filled with singing, dancing, and as many Abba songs as can be shoehorned into the plot, which has a lot of holes if you look closely. You shouldn’t.

In the original, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) invites three of her mother’s former boyfriends to her wedding in an effort to figure out which one of them is her father, all without telling her mom, Donna (Meryl Streep). Comedy and dance numbers ensue. This time around, as Sophie is following her mother’s dream of opening a hotel, we cut back to 1979, when an adventurous young Donna (Lily James) graduates from Oxford and meets those three guys on her way to the Greek island where she eventually raises Sophie. It’s frothy and fun and generally out of control, but also a powerful narrative about friendship and self-reliance.

One side effect of seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is becoming obsessed with capturing young Donna’s joie de vivre by replicating her beachy curls and ’70s wardrobe. Young Donna wears a rotating combination of denim overalls, floppy hats, diaphanous tunics, high-waisted jorts, killer bell-bottoms, and colorful, flowing maxi skirts.

I called up Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again costume designer Michele Clapton — also known for her work on Game of Thrones — to discuss dressing young Donna and how someone could, if they wanted to, get the look.

To get started, how did you approach costuming young Donna in the ’70s portion of the movie?

The ’70s is the reason I did the movie. I love the ’70s so much. For Lily, I was thinking of Stevie Nicks. I loved Jane Birkin. Nigella Lawson in the ’70s was so cool when she was at Oxford. I found these old pictures of her — she was a real inspiration for the Oxbridge scenes. And I looked at lots of photos of people on holiday in Greece to see how they dressed. Because it’s a musical, I tried to zap up the color and make it wearable.

For [Donna and her friends’] performance outfits, I wanted it to look really homemade, like they made them themselves. They put the frills on their jeans; it was a homemade attempt at being Abba.

Where did you source young Donna’s outfits?

Her “Waterloo” dress I found in LA. I can’t remember what shop it was, but the moment I saw it, I loved it so much. That was a vintage piece. Then we had to replicate it, which drove us insane. We had to digitally print it. That was incredibly difficult because it was so tonal and ’70s colors have so many colors within them. The print was never quite as good.

You need to have multiple copies of each look for filming?

Yes, in case anything went wrong. Sometimes you have one for a stand-in, or if they’re rehearsing in it. Lily always wore the original [in the film], but in rehearsal, she wore the double.

The “Waterloo” outfit is one of my favorites in the movie. Was that a dress or a jacket?

It’s a little dress, but it buttoned in the front, so it was a jacket dress. I put the little blue shorts underneath because I like the idea that she’s always practical. I didn’t want anything to look girly on her. I didn’t want her to look vulnerable. I wanted her to be in charge.

Where did you find her other looks?

The stripey trousers and the poncho were ’70s originals as well. I bought the orange poncho in Portobello Market. For her boots, we found a great pair on Etsy, which were the perfect shape but way too small for Lily. We needed to make three or four pairs [of replicas in her size] because they got a lot of hammering.

I think pretty much everything else was made for the movie. We made the dungarees, all the floaty skirts, and the cream dress that she dances in on the island [and in “Why Did It Have to Be Me?”], which was a replica of a dress I found in a ’70s photograph. I loved the flow of it, and I loved the shoulders.

Tell me more about the spirit of young Donna’s costuming. I love that you wanted her to look in-charge.

The movie is about a girl who slept with three people, and she doesn’t know who the father is. I wanted it to be about her as a strong woman and a modern woman and not a victim of this. I wanted her to be in control of the situation. Footwear is really important; it really roots someone. On Game of Thrones, Daenerys always wears boots and trousers. She can always run away. With Lily, I never wanted her to be coquettish or weak, so she always wears boots — either the platform boots [for her performances] or the Frye boots. I want women to see her as someone they understand, who’s relevant to women now as well as then.

I don’t want her to be revealing in a bikini. I want her in shorts, and yes, there’s a bikini top, but if I put her in a skimpy bikini, I think it would be so against the character.

Where did you find the butterfly necklace that she wears throughout the movie?

We sourced that in London. It was bigger — almost too big. It was an original from the ’70s. We had it copied and made slightly smaller because I thought it was too dominant. I really liked the butterflies as a motif throughout. It reflected her character, this beautiful sort of woman who was floating around and a bit aimless. Then I tried to reflect it with Amanda [Seyfried]’s dress in the christening scene. It was a contemporary top that I loved, and we wound up buying five of them that we could make a dress out of.

I was struck by how contemporary all the ’70s pieces looked, especially in their cut and fit. How much were you trying to make them look modern, rather than like period costumes?

On a film like this, you have to make it appeal to the modern eye. If you make it too period, people will misunderstand what that character’s about. That’s not to say that the pieces weren’t correct, but women’s bodies are different now. Women and men — particularly men — in the ’70s were so much skinnier. Men’s arms were like bits of string; that was an attractive look. I was mortified when some of the guys turned up and were so buff.

When you’re designing a film that’s a musical comedy piece, you want it to be accessible. You’re selling an idea of the ’70s, not, “This is what the ’70s was.”

So, say someone — like me — wanted to recreate Donna’s look. Where should I look?

Some of the tiered skirts, you can find them on Etsy. But get a really great pair of Frye boots. That’s key.

You can so easily add frills to your jeans. I quite like the homemade look; I used to do that when I was younger. People buy everything now. Why don’t you adapt your clothes to make it look like something? I would say try to do that. And root everything with the boots.

Where would young Donna be shopping today?

I think she’d be shopping vintage. I think she’d still be doing that. Picking up random things. It’s not one shop; it’s that magpie approach. Finding things that suit you and that are not too thought-out. I like that eclectic nature. It might be a skirt from Mango [and] then something she found in a market, put together in an individual way.