Costume designer JR Hawbaker on the sartorial stylings of ‘Amsterdam’
A behind-the-scenes peek at the vivid period looks created for the ‘American Hustle’ director’s new Margot Robbie-fronted movie
Friday 28 October By Bronwyn Cosgrave
JR Hawbaker spent 12 years assisting some of Hollywood’s leading costume designers – including working alongside Michael Wilkinson on David O Russell’s 2013 Oscar-winning black comedy, American Hustle – before fully taking up the mantle herself. Since then, she has gone on to create the looks for a dazzling array of productions, from Emmy-winning series Fargo to alt-history dystopian drama The Man in the High Castle.
Here, she reveals the value of taking time to learn every aspect of her trade while ‘sitting at the feet’ of some of the movie world’s greatest designers, as well as the influences and inspiration behind the breathtaking wardrobe she created for O Russell’s new star-studded period thriller, Amsterdam.
BC: The work of a costume designer starts with reading the script. Tell us what your thoughts were when you first read Amsterdam.
JRH: ‘David feels character so deeply, before world building or anything else, so the characters jump off the page. I was an assistant costume designer on his films before, so I had the training ground on his projects to also know that for him the script is really just a jumping-off point for inspiration. If you have an idea, he’s up for it. So, it’s like getting shot out of a cannon when you first experience it, but it’s a very creative environment to be around.’
BC: The interwar era was one of the most ground-breaking times for fashion. Paris ruled. Paul Poiret was the designer of the moment. Margot Robbie’s character, Valerie Voze, works like an avatar of the era. Tell us about the craft and process of assembling her wardrobe.
JRH: ‘It helps working with someone who is so deeply game. She is completely unafraid to play. It’s interesting you brought up Poiret. I didn’t look at his work but you know sometimes you just absorb things. My mentor is Jacqueline West [The Revenant, Dune]. She once told me: “You remember the important things.” So maybe subliminally he was in there.’
BC: Tell me the kind of challenges of creating that with a director like David O Russell. He is personally very stylish. He’s known for making films with directional wardrobes. He’s directed a film for Prada. Tell us about working with a director who understands fashion.
JRH: ‘David is in love with filmmaking of the Golden Era, all the way up to modern times. When David thinks, he thinks like 10 thoughts, so when you’re talking to him, he already has 10 references in his head that all blend together on top of each other.
‘For Amsterdam, he talked about Georgia O’Keeffe, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich and I was like, “Okay, I see the thread. These are strong women – women with a point of view that could not be contained.”
‘So we could do that with Valerie. She should be the essence of modernity, of where culture is going. She should be an innovator and a maverick. And be relatable to a modern audience while still having touches of period to her look.’
BC: Stylistically, how does Libby Voze (Anya Taylor Joy), work as a counterpoint to Valerie, her sister-in-law? In the scenes where they are together it’s as though you have the hot (Libby) and the cool (Valerie).
JRH: ‘Thank you for noticing. I did look at old movies in which the sets and the costumes have a dialogue with each other. In a way I think we’ve lost a little bit in modern filmmaking, mostly because of the speed involved. The process is so different that it puts us as costume designers at a disadvantage for really wanting to do it in that tradition. And I did want to have that sense of dialogue between colours associated with the characters.
‘I also designed The Man in the High Castle, so I have a pretty deep well of knowledge from the Nuremberg Rallies, and that very specific tone of red I think subliminally I laid it in there. It’s such a breathtaking colour, but it’s also slightly unsettling. It’s very unapologetic in its presence.
‘All those things – slightly unsettling and breathtaking and unapologetic – seemed to fit with when I talked to Anya about where she was going with the character, so we found a colour that would match where she was taking her character.’
BC: You have worked with some of my favourite costume designers, including Michael Wilkinson and Jacqueline West. Can you explain why working with them as an assistant costume designer has been so vital to your progression and mastering of the craft.
JRH: ‘I’ve been in costumes since I was 15 years old, so I spent a lot of time “sitting at the feet” of the greats. I feel like working with true artists – who have a lifetime of knowledge – you learn every single day. I’ve worked in every single position in the costume department. I was an assistant costume designer for 12 years.
‘The work made me appreciative of every departmental role. It makes me understand how to make the design soar. I know where I can push things and where I shouldn’t. And I feel like in Amsterdam, I used every single piece of knowledge I’ve ever learned. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the training ground and working under these artists. I feel really blessed.’
BC: You worked as the assistant costume designer to Michael Wilson who created the wardrobe for American Hustle. That was costume and fashion at the same time. It’s kind of hard to walk that line.
JRH: ‘There’s a real reason why you can do that dance between fashion and period costume – it flows through the same stream. Every era is talking to each other, and it just keeps flowing. And especially in a David O Russell film – we’re not trying to do a museum piece.
‘We’re trying to create something that is inspirational and portrays a feeling that can translate to a modern audience. If they feel like they’re too far away, they can’t relate. Fashion helps you with that. It helps make things relevant.’