Dressing the part: Creating “Carol”

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So many elements go into making a period film successful at depicting a bygone era; a slice of life from a time not so long ago that we can’t spot inaccuracies, but one that we relish with a particular kind of nostalgia or ire. The early 1950s was unnerving for Americans who were recovering from the fallout of World War II, looking to find some semblance of normalcy and achieving the American Dream.

In Carol, opening this Friday, the story unfolds in 1952 New York City, just before Christmas. But while the holiday in Manhattan usually conjures up bright shiny tinsel and bursting colors of light, this season is much more bleak. It’s not filled with joy, but complacency—until department store shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets the glamorous Carol (Cate Blanchett).

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Award-winning production designer Judy Becker said she used a color palette in Carol that she describes as “dirty and acidy; ones that are kind of unsettling emotionally.” 

“There’s a sadness about the holiday season, even for children,” Judy said. “And definitely for Terese, because she’s imprisoned in this job. And for Carol because of what’s going on in her personal life. So you’re in this toy store and it should feel like a joyous place but there’s definitely a sort of sad emotional undercurrent there and we did try to experience that in the colors.”

To achieve the melancholy depressiveness of Frankenberg’s, Judy said she wanted Therese’s work environment to be “prison-like.”

“We used fluorescent lighting which definitely adds to that feeling. We had a lot of signage—maybe you see one of the signs hanging is a metal sign—we modeled them after prison signs. We did a lot to enhance that depressive feeling,” she said. “The Christmas decorations are so sort of sparse and pitiful that they don’t make it feel happy they make it feel dismal.” As Therese lines up with her fellow workers outside the front door, each of them is unceremoniously given a Santa hat to put on their heads. That moment, Judy said, was “influenced by photographs of labor workers going to work.” It’s not the place that creative, aspiring photographer Therese longs to spend her days.

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A fan of Patricia Highsmith’s work, Judy said she re-read The Price of Salt (the novel Carol is based on) and found it helpful for her design, as Pat created a world where love was born inside of an otherwise drab existence.

“You see Terese’s face peering out of these dark spaces,” Judy said, “and I think that’s definitely the Highsmith moments in the movie.”

“This story takes place in a society where it’s repressive and intolerant and we did try to express that visually,” Judy continued. “Just 1952 New York, a lot of feelings of claustrophobia. A lot of feelings about not being able to express who you really are. The use of glass and the use of seeing people through glass and through different blocking devices; the feeling that Therese is imprisoned in the toy department, the austerity of the locations—all of those to help set the tone for this repressive period.”

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Costume designer Sandy Powell, who has won Oscars for her work on Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria, also helped to achieve the pre-Happy Days era with her impeccable choices of clothing in the same color palette that Judy used to dress the set. Carol is a glamorous, upper class woman who wears fur coats, leather gloves and classic high-fashion. Therese, when we first meet her, prefers  more casual skirts and sweaters.

“She dresses for practicality and comfort,” Sandy said. “She doesn’t dress to impress her boyfriend. I think she just dresses for herself and it’s not her priority, really, because she doesn’t know herself that well. It’s not her main concern. But as she gets to discover herself, you see her becoming more aware, more self-aware, and eventually realizes itself when she changes her look at the end. She’s more sophisticated and grown-up.”

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Early in the film, there is a glimpse of two more androgynous women in a record store Therese visits, and for their more masculine outfits, Sandy said she referenced photos taken at lesbian bars from the time period.

“There were women dressed in men’s clothing,” Sandy said. “One of the women is dressed in men’s clothing and the other women with her is not—she’s just in a suit. But that was deliberately scripted as the two obvious lesbians in the record store at a point where she is just recognizing who she is and recognizes them for what they are.”

But Sandy said that Carol and Therese aren’t hiding their queerness behind their clothing.

“Obviously Carol couldn’t—and even if she was out, completely, I’m not sure she’d be dressed any differently,” Sandy said. “I think she likes the way she dresses. Certainly certain people choose to dress a certain way. Some women who choose to wear men’s clothes wear men’s clothes. I don’t think Carol would suddenly starts wearing men’s clothing or wearing butch versions of her own clothing.”

The other major lesbian character in the film is Abby, Carol’s ex-lover and best friend, played by Sarah Paulson. Sandy said she was disappointed that some of Abby’s scenes were cut because she really liked the clothes she’d chosen for her.

“She’s not unfeminine but she’s more—I don’t know how to describe it, actually. A lot of the reference I took for her was not from fashion magazines but from what women wear in the country. Women who are in the country with a checked skirt and tailored jacket; kind of less refined, should we say,”  Sandy said. 

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Both Sandy and Judy said director Todd Haynes was very specific about the mood of Carol and the feelings he hopes to evoke with every single element; even the smallest details that give viewers insight into the women inhabiting the clothes and the world.

“In terms of the characters themselves, it’s really just a love story,” Judy said. “It’s a love story between two women, so the visual truth there is finding out who each character is and expressing that visually.”

Carol opens in theaters on Friday, November 20th.

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