Plus, Oscar-nominated Arianne Phillips dishes on the most meta costume design moment in the movie.
“This movie was super juicy,” says costume designer Arianne Phillips, about creating a stunning and expansive late ’60s-era wardrobe for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” “There were just so many wonderful things to explore and to express, whether it was [depicted] on-screen or off-screen [in the movie].”
Writer and director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film tells the story of two fictional best bros — has-been TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-slash-yes man Cliff Richards (Brad Pitt) — struggling to find their next career step amidst the rise of hippie culture and the harsh realities of late ’60s Hollywood. Depictions of real-life figures abound, from a reductive racial stereotype of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) to Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) at a Playboy Mansion party to Manson family member (and failed presidential assassin now out on parole) Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning).
Actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who was brutally murdered, along with her unborn child, in 1969 by Manson family members, serves as a regular presence in the film, often gazed at by the male leads. The actress and then-wife of director and now-fugitive Roman Polanski was a glamorous fashion icon at the time, and, after her tragic death, become canonized — at different levels of respect — in decades since.
With such a wide scope to cover, Phillips immediately dove into copious amounts of groundwork. Luckily, “research is my favorite part of any project,” says Madonna‘s longtime designer — both for stage and film, including “W.E.” for which Phillips was nominated for her second Oscar — and auteur Tom Ford‘s go-to (“Nocturnal Animals,” “A Single Man”). “I always say being a costume designer is like being a detective — specifically a people detective or a story detective.”
Phillips was one of the first to read Tarantino’s completed script and used that as a jumping off point. The film enthusiast and former video store clerk also introduced her to a “last man standing” VHS archivist in the San Fernando Valley to study a spectrum of film and TV genres featured in “OUATIH:” Rick Dalton’s black-and-white ’50s cowboy series “Bounty Law,” his guest spot on Cold War-era procedural “FBI” (above), a too-quick flash of the 1965 musical variety show “Hullabaloo” and his role as “the heavy” on the Western series “Lancer,” starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant, who should always play hero cowboys) and Wayne Maunder (the late beloved Luke Perry).
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Phillips also studied high fashion of the era and imagery from books, magazines, periodicals and Los Angeles-specific visuals. “Anything was game,” she says. Tarantino was also very “specific” about his costume notes in the script, but happy to collaborate with the veteran designer’s input. They both were taken with an Ossie Clark-designed floor-dusting snakeskin coat, which Tate wore to the “Rosemary’s Baby” premiere in 1968, so Phillips had it recreated for a driving scene in the film (above).
“Hollywood is the main character in this movie, so being someone that has worked in Hollywood for over 20 years, it was a really exciting place to be,” she says, adding the film “pulls the curtain back [to depict the] behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-the-scenes” of movie-making.
It’s always a pleasure to chat with the Costume Designers Guild Award winner about her talented method of storytelling through costume, including the meaning behind the sunny SoCal palette in Sharon’s wardrobe (and Cliff’s Hawaiian shirt), the real-life Hollywood inspirations behind Rick and Cliff’s ’60s looks and the wink-wink meta opportunity to costume design for a show-within-a-show costume designer who actually is a real-life costume designer. Did you get all that? Read on for more from our chat.
Margot Robbie’s costumes are so important because the audience learns about Sharon mostly through her expressions, actions and her look. How did you use costume to impart her story and pay respect to the real Sharon Tate?
Having worked on a few biopics about real people, like ‘Walk the Line’ about Johnny Cash and ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt,’ there is a responsibility to research and get as much information of these people and their lives. Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, was a consultant on this film, so I was able to talk to someone who knew her intimately. Debra was very, very generous in talking about Sharon.
Sharon was well-photographed, so there’s a lot of visuals out there, and a lot was written about what she wore because she’s so fashionable. She and Roman lived a very glamorous European lifestyle. So that was great to talk to Debra about who Sharon was and get some of the nuances that might inform choices.
In addition, Debra was preparing an auction of some of Sharon’s clothing and jewelry during the time we were making the movie, so I was able to see some of the clothes she owned up close and personal. Fifty years later, [the clothing] wouldn’t have been able to withstand being worn in a movie, but Debra was nice enough to loan me some jewelry that belonged to Sharon.
So that was a beautiful talisman for me, Margot and Quentin to remind ourselves to honor and have reverence. We mostly learn who Sharon is through her death, but to learn about who she was as she lived was really, really wonderful. For a buddy picture about two best [male] friends, it’s really nice to be able to have a strong female character.
What is the meaning behind the yellow palette that Sharon wears throughout the movie?
For me, yellow is a happy color and a very California color. Quentin and I both responded to it. When I think of the ’60s, I think of a lot of yellow and orange, and yellow looked great on Margot. It just felt like a breath of fresh air, really, and it really was vibrant in the way that Sharon was.
Rick’s a TV star trying to stay relevant in Hollywood. So who did you look to for inspiration for his costumes?
A lot of the direction came from Quentin — and Quentin’s language of costumes in his films are notable — and he had written about a ‘leather jacket.’ But it was about finding the right leather jacket. We looked at a lot of ’60s cowboy actors, like Edd Byrnes, Steve McQueen and different actors from the time. Some who made the transition into movie stars — and some who didn’t. I had a lot of pieces made and pulled some specific vintage pieces together. We had to have a few marathon fittings because Rick Dalton has a lot of costume changes in the movie.
What is the story behind the gold pendant and big pinky ring that Rick regularly wears?
That gold pendant was custom-made for our film by a wonderful jewelry designer Stuart England. Stuart makes these wonderful medallions and pendants. I wanted to use his work for a long time in films. I almost did in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle.’
I just felt like Rick should have some kind of masculine jewelry and Steve McQueen was famously photographed with a medallion and I always loved that. I always thought it was sexy. So I thought Rick needed one, and Leo and Quentin responded to it. It actually is monogrammed with a little ‘R’ on it. The lion pinky ring was a collaboration with Chris Call, our property master, Leo and Quentin. It’s just a really cool piece of jewelry that looked right on him.
Cliff’s Hawaiian shirt was written into the script (‘old guy in a Hawaiian shirt’). What was the inspiration behind creating that look?
The Hawaiian shirt was written in the script, but the color, the pattern and what kind of shirt weren’t. This is not a palm tree Hawaiian shirt. It kind of has more of an Asian — Japanese — motif and was inspired by a vintage shirt. The ones that Brad wore were custom-made and digitally printed. The color, yellow, was not written in the script. Quentin, Brad and I all put our heads together on that in the fitting room. We had a lot of shirts to choose from and as we were figuring out who this guy was.
What did the ‘Champion’ T-shirt tell us about him?
The ‘Champion’ shirt came directly from Quentin. It wasn’t written in the script, but it was something he thought about. Just like Brad’s T-shirt that he wears on the ‘Green Hornet’ set — a ‘Lion’s Raceway’ T-shirt — Brad loved those T-shirts.
We see guys like this on set, the support guys, the behind-the-scenes guys, the stunt men. These guys are confident guys. Like Rick says in the movie, ‘You can throw him off a building; you can have him crash a car.’ That’s their job every day. They’re unique characters. [Cliff] wears moccasins. He wears denim. I’ve worked with many, many stuntmen, and there’s an ease and practicality to what they wear.
He wore vintage Levi’s jeans and a vintage Wrangler jacket with a zipper, for which we searched high and low. I really wanted one with a zipper, rather than a rivet — reminiscent of the  movie ‘Billy Jack,’ starring Tom Laughlin.
On the ‘Lancer’ set, a costume designer, Rebecca, comes in to dress a hungover Rick. She’s wearing a bunch of pins on her moto jacket, including a large one that reads ‘Sock It to Me.’ What was it like costume designing for a character who does your job?
That ‘Sock it To Me’ larger-than-life button, Quentin really wanted her to wear it. That actress is Courtney Hoffman. She was a costumer on [Tarantino’s] ‘Django Unchained’ and then became the costume designer for ‘Hateful Eight.’ She’s one of Quentin’s closest friends. She’s a dear friend of mine. She directed a short film after ‘Hateful Eight’ and now has multiple film projects. Courtney was one of the people who put in a good word for me to even get the movie. So Quentin [cast] her as a costume designer, which was, for us, like art imitating life.
The makeup artist in that scene is Quentin’s longtime makeup artist, Heba Thorisdottir, who’s worked with him since ‘Kill Bill.’ Actually, a lot of the crew have cameos in the movie. But, it’s my first rodeo with Quentin, so I didn’t have a cameo in the film. Usually you have to have been around for more than one film to get a cameo.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.