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! **

The Help: Interview With Designer Sharen Davis!

Happy weekend, everyone!  I hope that you have had a chance to see The Help – it is a very interesting and thought-provoking movie, and I have had the great good fortune to talk with (twice-Oscar-nominated) costume designer Sharen Davis about her work on this movie – AND she gave me some sketches to share with you!!!  I screened the film for my mom, and she went crazy about the hair!!  Sharen answers all of my (and my mom’s) questions, after the jump!  Read on!

Sharen Davis' design for Skeeter (Emma Stone). Illustration: Gina Flanagan

Sharen Davis' costume design for Skeeter (Emma Stone). Illustration: Gina Flanagan

How did you come to be involved on this project?

I came across the book The Help in an airport kiosk. I started reading as soon as the plane started taxiing down the runway! It was as if I was reading a slice of life story of my grandmother’s youth. She was a domestic in Louisiana, and though none of the characters were like her, she had friends like them.

I checked in with my agent and asked if they could track the novel, to see if it was going to be a screenplay. As luck would have it, I knew many people connected to the project, and I was fortunate enough to get hired!

What were your initial thoughts about these characters, and what was important to you to portray about them?

Tate Taylor (the director, who also wrote the screenplay) did a wonderful job of reformatting the story, staying true to the novel’s characters. His casting choices were amazing, and we all wanted to bring Kathryn Stockett’s book to life!

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her cohorts.  Note the pastel color palette.

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her cohorts. Note the pastel color palette.

There is such a divide in the film between the white society ladies’ world and the world of the maids. Can you tell us how you separated them (in terms of their color palette)? For me, the color palette was a greater metaphor for the racism that divided them…

All of these women – characters coming from different income levels with different lifestyles and goals… I had to toss out the idea of one color palette. I decided to use different color palettes for the maids, the young social circle, and the characters whose story arcs move through both worlds.

Sissy Spacek (Mrs. Walters)

Sissy Spacek (Mrs. Walters) - note the neutral color palette.

Mrs. Walters and Skeeter seemed to be a bit outside the “white society ladies’” color range – can you talk about that?

Skeeter and Mrs. Walters were the characters strong enough to carry their own design. Skeeter, still wearing sportswear from college, wore some junior professional outfits, adding some feminine dresses with color after she falls for her young man.

Sissy (Spacek, playing Mrs. Walters) and I discussed the idea that in spite of the fact that she has a little loss of memory, and that her daughter Hilly had sold her house out from under her and stolen her domestic, she held on to all of her jewels and minks. It was a way to make her somewhat eccentric.

Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) resplendent in yellow.

Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) resplendent in yellow.

I loved the Celia Foote costumes so much – can you tell us about how you arrived at her look – so much red and yellow?

I researched the novel itself to make Celia Foote come to life. Jessica (Chastain, playing Celia Foote) and I decided that words like “innocent”, “bombshell”, “feminine” with a little “country” would best sum up this sweetheart of a character.

Sharen Davis

Sharen Davis' costume design for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Illustration: Gina Flanagan

Aibilene’s mustard yellow dress (when she serves tea to Skeeter), and Minny’s “delivering the pie” dress, with the awesome green hat – those costumes were so brilliant! How did you come to these design decisions? It was such stark contrast to their maid uniforms and even their at-home clothing.

The domestics’ primary costumes were the grey uniforms, each with different detail, as I saw befitting their characters. They had casual home dresses, which were faded and overdyed lightly grey. They also had older day dresses, such as Aibilene’s yellow ochre dress with black detail – something she would wear on a personal day for shopping or to entertain a guest. This dress is used in the opening – a yellow dress with black trim – described in the novel.

For Minny, I used her “Sunday best”, usually reserved for church or special occasions, a piece that was timeless. I used jewel tones and more detailed silhouettes for these designs. When Minny delivers the chocolate pie to Hilly, she wears this church dress – she wants to show respect – but we dipped her green hat to show how uncomfortable she was, undertaking this task.

Aibilene (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) in church finery.  Note the subdued color palette.

Aibilene (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) in church finery. Note the subdued color palette with rich jewel tones.

Can we talk about your collaboration with hair and makeup? Skeeter’s hair was an interesting choice – my mom wants to know!

The book describes Skeeter’s hair as a frizzy mess, which may have appeared overwhelming on film! Through camera tests, it was decided that curly hair – which was not at all popular at the time – would be her “look”. To give some perspective, at the time, most young girls were ironing their hair straight!

Sharen Davis' costume design for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) for the big black-tie ball.

Sharen Davis' costume design for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) for the big black tie ball. Illustration: Gina Flanagan

How did you make it work with all of the background (extras) you had, along with all of those principals? Such an ensemble cast! What strategy did you employ to cover those bases?

I was fortunate enough to get a majority of the cast weeks before shooting, so I started designing the dresses in Los Angeles. We shopped many vintage stores and gathered great clothing and all the jewelry. I combined made-to-order with vintage and rentals.

Minny (Octavia Spencer), Aibilene (Viola Davis) and Skeeter (Emma Stone) talk about the book.

Minny (Octavia Spencer), Aibilene (Viola Davis) and Skeeter (Emma Stone) talk about the book. Note the subdued color palette.

Tell me about working on this film as an African-American woman. The film portrays an ugly chapter in America’s history, and the subject matter is still incendiary. How do you, in our 2012 world, approach this material that was our parents’ generation’s sad reality?

As I mentioned, my grandmother, Mamma Nellie, who was my research guru, was a domestic in Louisiana. When I was a young girl, I stayed with my grandmother over the summers. I was in awe of her uniform, and the fact that she worked, instead of being a housewife.

During my twenties, I realized how much she sacrificed. I did not let people know where I came from.

Now, older and wiser, I am not only proud of my grandmother, but also I understand why she worked, so that my mother could enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle.

Celia (Jessica Chastain) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) get to know each other.  Note the disparity in color palette!

Celia (Jessica Chastain) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) get to know each other. Note the disparity in color palette!

There were many pundits of the film and book who have called it racist. How do you respond to that?

After reading The Help, I felt that the story was more about change – the beginning of women’s rights, African-Americans’ rights, and civil rights in the early 1960s, in the slow-changing southern part of the United States.

Sharen Davis

Sharen Davis' costume design for Skeeter (Emma Stone). Illustration: Gina Flanagan

How has your life as an African American woman informed your design work throughout your career? What do you take away from your experience on “The Help” in terms of the story it tells about African American women?

I have done some amazing projects in my years as a costume designer, being hired basically for films with an African-American storyline or theme. The Help is actually one of the few times I have had the opportunity to design for a predominantly white, female cast.

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Huge thanks to Sharen Davis for this fascinating interview. I hope that you all have a chance to see this film and start discussions of your own about this story! Have a great weekend, everyone, and congrats to Sharen and her crew on a job very well done!

-KMB

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