Dressed for excess

By Zoe Walker

Research and collaborations with fashion houses allowed the woman behind The Great Gatsby's costumes to bring the glitz and exuberance of the Roaring 20s to life - and to stores

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby'. Photo / Supplied
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby'. Photo / Supplied

The beautiful shirts and the gilded mansions, the beads and chiffon of an evening dress, and that pink suit: seldom has a work of literature made such a timeless, stylish mark, with Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby taking F. Scott Fitzgerald's flair for style and turning it up for modern times.

Catherine Martin is the woman behind the incredible costumes and set design of the film, which amplify the excess and exuberance of Fitzgerald's jazz age and Luhrmann's signature theatricality. The award-winning costume and production designer has worked with Luhrmann for more than 20 years, working on the distinctive theatrical look of all his films and helping to translate his grand ideas into reality. "Baz is the author, the one who generates the kernel of the idea, and I'm an applied artist," she explained to Elle of their working relationship. (The couple married in 1997.) Martin has also developed herself as a design "brand", with furniture and bedding created for Anthropologie, wallpaper and textiles in collaboration with New Zealand-based Mokum Textiles, and lushly decorated rugs with Designer Rugs (some of which appear in The Great Gatsby).

On the phone from Sydney the morning after the Australian Gatsby premiere, Martin explains that she was initially unenthusiastic about Luhrmann's vision to adapt the work. "I wasn't crazy about the book. I had read it as a teenager and didn't really connect to the theme," she explains. Luhrmann convinced her to give it another chance, and she read it again in one sitting. "And I absolutely loved it. I became the world's biggest Fitzgerald fanatic."

She was fanatical in her research, too, and although the film isn't entirely accurate in terms of historical dress, Martin was a dedicated student of 1920s style. From Jay Gatsby's flashy light pink suit, weighty with its symbolism of class and showiness, to Nick Carraway's white flannel pants favoured by Yale graduates, Luhrmann and Martin, like Fitzgerald, relied heavily on dress in conveying subtleties of character. It's most obvious in the contrast between Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, with cool, modern Jordan, in her graphic lines, backless evening gowns, pants and tortoiseshell sunglasses, acting as a visual contrast to the pampered, flushed Daisy, in her fragile pastel lace and ethereal robe de style silhouettes.

Martin's research also involved referencing photos and paintings - the parties at Gatsby's mansion had specific colour palettes, with the first decadent party based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the second, "where the shine, or the silver plating, has worn off the brass", explains Martin, related to the Weimar paintings of Otto Dix.

She liaised too with academics specialising in the fashion and clothing in Fitzgerald's work, to understand completely the history and cultural contexts of the style of the time. That involved everything from the folded-back cuffs popular in 1920s suits to the weight of knits, in sync with what would have been available in 1922. Sometimes she chose to ignore the advice completely (Jordan Baker wearing pants is an obvious example), but she was always aware. This is not Downton Abbey or Mad Men, where the style of the era is recreated down to the finest detail. Rather, Martin says she had faith in Luhrmann's vision of the source material.

"You're conscious of what's gone before, and you're conscious of popular culture - Downton Abbey is set in a similar period - but you have to remind yourself that what you're trying to make is not a documentary, but a Baz Luhrmann interpretation of an iconic American novel. It was a very specific approach."

That approach included several much talked about fashion partnerships. Possibly no film in recent history has been as heavy with collaborations as Luhrmann's adaptation, and though the hype surrounding them seems to be at odds with Fitzgerald's comment on shallow materialism, Martin believes they help to tell the story. (It's not the first time the work has been linked with fashion either; the 1974 film starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford featured costumes by Ralph Lauren.)

A collaboration with Tiffany and Co. saw Martin given extensive access to the archives, with jewellery from the brand featured throughout the film: from originals of the period (like an art deco pin on Jordan's cloche hat) to pieces recreated from archival drawings (Daisy's incredible diamond and pearl tiara headband worn at Gatsby's party). Other pieces, like Gatsby's Daisy signet ring, were creations designed especially for the film; many have been included in Tiffany's Jazz Age Glamour collection available in stores.

Likewise, the men's costumes created by Brooks Brothers in collaboration with Martin - most inspired by images and products from the company's archives - inspired a contemporary Gatsby collection released to coincide with the film's launch.

Martin also created a collection with Swiss hosiery brand Fogal, with styles featuring in the film on various female characters.

These collaborations, while a little brash and at times obvious (the Moet placements in the film are at times so explicit it's laughable), do have historical relevance: Tiffany & Co. was a favoured brand of 1920s New York society, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, one of the first well-known design directors of Tiffany's, frequented the Long Island circles spoken about in the novel, while Brooks Brothers was favoured by Ivy Leaguers of 1920s society.

Fitzgerald himself was a long-time customer; he mentions the brand several times in his writing as a symbol of appropriate dress for an American gentleman of distinction.

The hosiery tie-in is less about the brand and more what they symbolise: female sexual liberation. With the rising hemlines of the 1920s, hosiery provided a hint of what was under a woman's dress - in the film this is shown particularly through the character of Myrtle, with her rolled-down stockings.

Then of course there is Prada. The much-discussed collaboration with Miuccia Prada saw 40 dresses from the Prada and Miu Miu archives adapted and restyled to feel more 1920s, with incredible results: paillettes, encrusted jewels and Daisy's chandelier party dress made of shimmering crystal drops, based on the spring 2010 Prada collection.

These dresses appear in the two hedonistic party scenes heaving with over-the-top decadence, worn by lucky extras who were each given their own character background, even if they had no lines. Martin and her team worked with around 350 extras; allowing her the freedom to experiment with "the language of costume" and explore as many 1920s silhouettes as possible. (Somewhere in the mass of stylish bodies are also dresses from Trelise Cooper.)

Prada as a brand, which looks to the past but always towards the future, explains Martin, worked with Luhrmann's vision.

"Miuccia uses all these historical references, but in an unexpected and modern way, and that was very much the spirit of the 20s.

"It fitted in absolutely with the way that Baz wanted to tell this story of Gatsby; that is, have contemporary relevance but very rooted in its historical basis." The encrusted elements so often featured in Prada collections also worked well in 3D.

For Martin, these partnerships - like the contemporary music that features in the film - help to bring the story into contemporary times, and showcase the level of wealth and splendour Fitzgerald wrote about.

"It's not like we sat there and went, 'okay, we're going to contemporise the 1920s'. It was much more about bringing references out of the material that connected with contemporary culture," she explains. "It was about respecting the fact that Fitzgerald was an obsessive modernist: he was not nostalgic for the past."

The Great Gatsby opens on June 6.

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