Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Mona May: You Have to be Bold

Costume Designer Mona May

Costume Designer Mona May

Roving Frocktalk reporters Anthony Tran, Laura Wong, and JoAnn Orr met up with fabulous costume designer Mona May at the 18th Annual FIDM Art of Motion Picture Costume Design event. As part of our UCLA Costume Design for Film class, they all studied Enchanted and wrote papers about the costume design. Here, they meet the designer, the lady with the answers to all of their questions. To say they were agog upon meeting her is perhaps putting it too lightly.  They were thunderstruck.

Tell us about working on Enchanted

MM: I think what was really great was seeing animated characters translated to live-action. If you imagine a princess and the proportions of a princess, she always has a tiny waist. She always has big sleeves and some kind of a big skirt. I mean from probably when you were 2 years old you remember that. So this was really important in this movie. I designed all the costumes for the animation first, to know what we have to do in live-action and to translate those proportions into live-action. So this is why the dress is so big and so heavy — it had to resemble, on a human scale, the proportion of an animated character. So how big do you have to make the skirt to make her waist look so tiny? How big do the sleeves have to be? How big must the hair be? When she’s walking around New York City and Times Square, you really need to see that animated character as proportional to our world. And, in your subconscious, you’re still feeling like it’s the animated character even though now it’s live-action.

Another thing that was really cool about the movie was the translation of the other character, Narissa, the evil queen. It was also something that had never been done before: 2-D animation (drawn), that becomes a live-action character, then becomes a CGI dragon. So you have 3 different mediums that you’re working with, and then translating that same character with textures, proportion, and everything so it has to be seamless.

Mona May then called in her friend, James Hayes, who made James Marsden’s costume, to discuss the making of that costume.

James Hayes:

Yeah, we made him butt pads.

Mona May:

And chest pads and crotch pads.

James Hayes:

We can make anybody look good! (Editor’s note: Not like it takes much to make James Marsden look good, BELIEVE me  🙂  )

Mona May:

Again, matching the animated costume that he has – the puffy chest and the sleeves. What was really important was that he had to move so much.

James Hayes:

It took lots of different materials. 3 different foams. Each foam has a different thickness, measured in pores per inch, like little bubbles. We picked a dense one, but it had to be really, really strong and had to keep its shape. It took 16 samples.

Mona May:

Also, the proportions changed [after testing each sample]. You know, the first one, we started off so big you couldn’t even see his head. We had to scale down, scale down.

On Giselle’s (Amy Adams) transition in the film:

MM: You start with her as a very animated character. Very fake. So you have the very, very big eyelashes, porcelain skin, and big, big sleeves. As she’s becoming more a part of our world, living with us on Earth, we begin to strip that stuff. We start to strip the corset, strip the porcelain skin so you start seeing more imperfection. And, when she decides to stay in our world, in the ballroom, she becomes the elegant, young, modern girl. Just to pick that color took a lot. What color could we use for the dress? It couldn’t be red. We didn’t want to do black. Lavender’s still her, in a way. We fiddled with it. You know it’s fantastic what really goes into all of it, the psychology of it, and the subliminal messages you’re sending. So you have to really think about all of this stuff when you’re designing.

On The Cheetah Girls: One World and Clueless:

MM: It’s Fantastic when you get to blend cultures. You know, you’re coming from New York City; the girls are going to India. Again, stripping New York and bring more everyday Indian influences and making it very hip. And, again, who are they? And how are they going to translate that fashion, the very Indian, ethnic thing, into their wardrobe so it becomes cool? It’s kind of like Clueless, you know, taking something that’s very different, let’s say runway fashions (in Clueless), and again, translating that into the girls’ costumes. And let’s remember, they’re in high school. You don’t want to make them look like slutty models. It wouldn’t make sense for the characters. How do you take that and make it young and make it youthful and still very high fashion, but appropriate? That’s the question.

On Clueless and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion:

MM: It’s funny what you have to think about when you talk about costuming, fashion and comedy. How do you blend that stuff? You could easily go too far and make a farce, so you always have to find the balance. Balance is really, really important. I think sometimes we go too far because we want to be funny or, you know, our egos get full. [mockingly] “I want to design for this star! She’s going to be crazy!” You have to walk the line and make sure it’s still rooted in the character. I mean Romy and Michele were crazy girls, but you believed it even though they were insane.

On if she talks to hair and makeup people to plan looks:

MM: Always. Always. It’s very important for the designer to always be in charge of that stuff because it has to complement (the “look” of the character). Hair people start much later than we do so you have to drive it. (With Clueless) I picked the color of the gum they were chewing. Everything. I made the pens. Everything. You have to be obsessive-compulsive sometimes. You have to drive people crazy sometimes but, in the end, it pays off. You have to work with the prop department. You have to work with Hair. You have to work with the DP. You have to work with the Production Designer. You have to work with the Decorator. Because if she’s wearing high fashion and the sheets are Laura Ashley…hello? I mean you have to have your nose in everything. You know, we get lazy; people get really lazy. To have this kind of impact, you have to be like a general. You really do. You have to be always prepared.

On boards and presentations:

MM: The presentations for getting the job are huge. It’s a fine line because you don’t know what they want. So you have to be clever. You can bring in options and not be married to one. You have to be flexible and kind of feel it out as you go. Because if you say, “I want this!” And they’re thinking the complete opposite, it’s like, “You suck!” I got Enchanted because of the Narissa costume. Everybody (other designers they were interviewing) brought in more period stuff and I brought in Thierry Mugler. The director was like, “So weird. Why do you think that?” And I said, “Because, you know, she’s so rich. If she’s coming from the animated world and she has all the money in the world, she’d be going to Paris fashion shows. I mean, I want her to walk into New York City, people turning heads, and going, ‘That’s cool!’ Instead of going, ‘Oh, there’s some crazy lady coming from a ball, period thing…'” And he was very intrigued. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb if you really believe in something, but it’s a risk. You have to be bold. I think your intuition tells you stuff as you get more experienced.

Any advice for aspiring designers?

MM: Persevere. Most importantly: never give up. It’s a hard industry and you have to be very dedicated. You have to love your job. The minute you don’t, get out! You’re working many hours. You’re going to be going on location and it’s not going to be easy. You’re going to be dealing with producers and actors who are crazy. Changes are going to happen last minute. You can’t be married to something. You have to have a vision, but within that vision, you have to be flexible. If you want that brown sweater, but it’s itchy and the actor really hates it, don’t insist on it. Find something else. And make them happy. They have to walk on the set and feel like a million bucks and they have to feel that they are in character to the hundredth degree. When that happens, you did your job.

Mona May, thank you so much for your insight and advice! It was truly a pleasure to talk with you and thank you for sharing your stories!!

— AT, LW & JO

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