Dressing the decades

Ann Roth on Irene Sharaff, Brigadoon, MGM, Walter Plunkett, Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr Ripley

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ann Roth on her backstory for dressing Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley: “I knew where he went to prep school and I knew that his father, who was an international guy, had assorted New York Saville Row clothes.”
Ann Roth on her backstory for dressing Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley: “I knew where he went to prep school and I knew that his father, who was an international guy, had assorted New York Saville Row clothes.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the third part of my series of conversations with Ann Roth, we discuss one of her first jobs in the “movie business”, which was working with costume designer Irene Sharaff on Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon, starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. Sharaff, a five-time Oscar winner (for Walter Lang’s The King And I, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story, Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Minnelli’s An American In Paris shared with Walter Plunkett and Orry-Kelly, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra with Vittorio Nino Novarese Renié) had wanted Ann Roth to come to California.

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson in Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon - costumes by Irene Sharaff
Gene Kelly and Van Johnson in Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon - costumes by Irene Sharaff

The Civil War era costumes by Plunkett in Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind under David O Selznick and Ann Roth’s (BAFTA Best Costume Design nomination with Carlo Poggioli) for Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain differ in - among other things - the exaggerated shoulder pads which so obviously give the former movie away as a product of the 1930s. A combination of the styles of two decades can, on the other hand, enhance the effect, as Roth’s costumes did in The Day Of The Locust, where Nathanael West’s Hollywood of the late Thirties blends with the nostalgia of the mid-Seventies. Not surprisingly, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was shot at the same time as John Schlesinger’s film.

Movie costumes influence our desires, the fashion industry picks up on it. Round and round it goes. Just take Plunkett’s clothes for the March sisters in George Cukor’s Little Women, a film that influenced Batsheva Hay for her dresses, which, coming full circle, found themselves on the inspiration board for Jacqueline Durran, who designed the wardrobe for Greta Gerwig’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s book.

Ann’s clothes for The Talented Mr Ripley worked wonders for Patricia Highsmith and inspired trends since the film came out, rediscovered by the stylish young and old.

Ann Roth on Irene Sharaff’s work in Brigadoon: “I’d never seen anyone make a costume more complex than she did.”
Ann Roth on Irene Sharaff’s work in Brigadoon: “I’d never seen anyone make a costume more complex than she did.”

Anne-Katrin Titze: Is it true that you worked on Brigadoon?

Ann Roth: Are you talking about at MGM in the Fifties? Yes, I worked on it. I painted. Yes, I did. It was one of my first jobs in the movie business. I worked for Irene Sharaff, the person who wanted me to come to California. I got there, I had no contract or anything like that, but I was put there to paint.

AKT: Heather?

AR: No! Ha! I don’t know how many clans there were. Let’s say there were five clans and within the clans, let’s say there were twelve male dancers in the clan. And they had 12 Royal Stewart kilts. They wouldn’t have been Royal Stewart, but I think my favourite ones were the Douglas, grey and blue plaid.

At any rate, she, Sharaff, who’s a very great designer, would take three, three, three, and three and dip this one a little on the green side and have these dyed … Now these are of course 16 yards each, per kilt. It’s a lot of dying. The kilt right off the loom would be a white background with blue and green and grey, if I recall. Enough for five or four guys - she would have it dyed in blue and grey. She wanted each one to be different.

AKT: It shows. The costumes are sublime.

Karen Black with Burgess Meredith in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust - costumes by Ann Roth
Karen Black with Burgess Meredith in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust - costumes by Ann Roth

AR: There was a metallic braid put on each one, whether it was on the hem, which was hard for the pleating. I’d never seen anyone make a costume more complex than she did. I mean, she was the epitome of the expensive costume.

AKT: They were beautiful.

AR: They were beautiful. She was phenomenal. Very stern, very, very stern. Not a darling person.

AKT: You have to be stern, doing what she did, don’t you?

AR: I loved her. In the movie business in that day, you see, each studio had its own designers. And that was MGM. At MGM there was Helen Rose, who did things like The Swimmer. There was one person who did the costumes and another person who did, let’s say, period stuff. But Helen Rose would do June Allyson going to school, or Donald O’Connor. And she would do the musicals. But then there was Walter Plunkett, who did …

AKT: Little Women, for example.

AR: Did he do Little Women? He did what they considered period clothes. With shoulder pads, whatever the period. But all of them did. None of them would bow to the period.

Donald Sutherland in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust - costumes by Ann Roth
Donald Sutherland in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust - costumes by Ann Roth

AKT: When you did The Day of the Locust, did you feel you were bowing to the period?

AR: You mean, did I change it? No. I did the period.

AKT: At the same time, it feels very much 1975, too.

AR: Does it?

AKT: Yes and it’s great. Because it does that, it’s alive. I love the combination.

AR: But did you love it in, the Civil War?

AKT: Cold Mountain?

AR: No, not mine. Selznick?

AKT: Gone With The Wind?

AR: Yes. When the men all had big shoulder pads? Did you like that?

AKT: No.

Nicole Kidman in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain - costumes by Ann Roth
Nicole Kidman in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain - costumes by Ann Roth

AR: Well that’s bowing to the period. The period is the period. When they made it in ’38 - shoulder pads.

AKT: Yeah, it’s not always good. But I do sometimes like the combination of seeing two periods at once.

AR: That’s interesting. I want to remember that.

AKT: Day Of The Locust is the perfect example that combines 1975 with when is it taking place, the Thirties?

AR: 1938, I think.

AKT: We see two in one. Chinatown is another example.

AR: Yes, we were doing them at the same time. On the same studio lot, Anthea [Sylbert] and I.

AKT: Your costumes for The Talented Mr Ripley have become iconic.

AR: It's funny. I know that people always compliment me on the costumes for Ripley. And very recently I had a phone call about would I be interested in doing a television series of Patricia Highsmith's books. They're going to do all seven or eight. I said “who is calling?” And I never got a straight answer. And so I let it go. But I did hear from somebody that they wanted to use an Italian and none of the clothes were Italian. I made it there and I made all of Jude's clothes here.

Matt Damon and Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley - costumes by Ann Roth
Matt Damon and Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley - costumes by Ann Roth

Because I knew where he [Dickie Greenleaf, Jude Law’s role in Ripley] went to prep school and I knew that his father, who was an international guy, had assorted New York Saville Row clothes. Bankers clothes of that period. And the kid didn't realise what they were, but he would go and get a new jacket, because he knew he was hot stuff at school. At any rate, they want to have an Italian designer. And that would be wrong. Probably they don't know.

AKT: Or don't care?

AR: They won't know the difference.

Read what Ann Roth had to say on Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Josh Singer, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, John Schlesinger, and Mike Nichols.

Read what Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli had to say on working together during The English Patient and Roth on creating the backstory.

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