When director Damien Chazelle and costume designer Marie Joffres were discussing the costumes for his epic “Babylon,” they wanted to break away from something audiences had already seen in films set in the 1920s.
The world of “Babylon” is set in Hollywood as the advent of sound marks the end of the silent film era.
Joffres began to collect photographs, but nothing after 1926. By sharing photos, listening to music and looking at paintings from the era, he gives a brief account of how he approaches his formal preparations.
The task ahead was a mammoth one, which he called the biggest challenge of his career. “Babylon” is filled with fictional movie stars, producers and filmmakers and is headlined by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Clava, Jovan Adepo and Jean Smart.
Robbie’s character Nellie Loroy was based on silent era star Clara Bow. For LaRoy’s first entry into the picture, Zophres decided it was the perfect opportunity to use red. “It’s all one of power and temptation. There’s a reason the red dress has this reputation that precedes itself,” says Zophres. But it’s not just a red dress, it’s flashy and revealing, and Zophres was careful not to dress any other character in the scene in the same color.
The scene features a cast of over a hundred, all in their Roaring 20s best. It is the audience’s introduction to the world of “Babylon”, with a paranormal party, drugs and ironic entertainment. LaRoy is different, and, as Joffres says, “Red has an affinity for decadence.”
But before he even started putting the costume together, Joffres watched choreographer Mandy Moore work on the drug-fueled dance sequence. “There was a lot of dancing on the furniture and [people] being carried [around] by others,” says Joffres.
He had an idea that Nelly would wear tap shorts. This supports the background story that she was a dancer in New York and it may have been something she wore under one of her dresses and stole it. “To me, she put that outfit together,” says Joffres, with a scarf and another piece “that she’s going to tie as a sash.” The sash was made from vintage Chinese silk and the dress gave Robbie the freedom to slide on her knees, throw her legs up and move as needed, which “was very difficult to do in a dress.”
As for the over-revealing aspect of clothing, actors of that era were going through an earthquake. “The industry was changing drastically, and I liken it to what was happening in women’s fashion,” Joffres says. “Nellie was someone who would see her mother or grandmother in a corset, but young women in the 1920s wore nothing underneath. So there is this liberating feeling. And the skirt that grazed your ankles now grazes your knees. It was groundbreaking.”
Women fought to gain the right to vote and other freedoms. The freedom of clothing at the time “mimicking the ideas of the movie: If you put someone in a cage long enough, they get restless,” says Jofres. He described LaRoy as “completely uninhibited, bold, daring and a good dancer. … He is the epitome of someone who works his assets off.”
The film, which he called the most difficult project he had ever done, contained more than 250 speaking parts, of which LaRoy changed 20 to 30. “It was incredibly creative and passionate,” says Joffres.