What It's Really Like Being a Costume Designer in Hollywood

May 11, 2018 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images

Feature film costume designer Shay Cunliffe has been designing for A-listers since the '80s, working with everyone and anyone from Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy to Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore in 2007's Because I Said So. Most recently, she worked as the costume designer for Fifty Shades Freed and is the designer for the upcoming film Book Club, which is full of Hollywood leading ladies like Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen.

Cunliffe (pictured below) chatted exclusively with SheKnows about designing for leading Hollywood celebrities and the way the costume design industry is changing thanks to movements like #MeToo and body positivity. She also got candid about actors' insecurities and those Hollywood moments she'll never forget.

Shay Cunliffe
Image: Getty Images

SheKnows: How do you handle it as a designer when you have an actor who says, "Hey, I feel insecure about certain things..."?

Shay Cunliffe: I have a lot of compassion for that because I myself have things I would never wish to highlight. I know how tricky it is. I was complaining to my sister about how awful I felt about various aspects of my body and she said, "My God, you spend your life in fitting rooms with the most perfect little, tiny bodies. Of course you're feeling [that way]." So when an actor just begins to mention what they're not crazy about, I get it. I agree with them. I know there's a school of thought like, "Just be proud of what you're shaped like. Ignore it." I personally think, "Why not emphasize what's great and downplay what's not so great?" I'm a big believer in that. I'm sort of amazed that it seems a lot of people now think, "No, I'm wearing that. Who cares?" I personally think there's a look for everyone, and it doesn't have to be that you wear everything. With a difficult shape in an actor — and it doesn't have to be large or small. Some actors are so tiny that they look overwhelmed in most clothes. And some actors are a pretty great shape, but they're actually pretty short-waisted so the waist seam doesn't hit in the right place. There's a whole range of reasons things don't work. With a lot of people, I realize that we should make their clothes. That's essentially the secret weapon a costume designer has — is deciding pretty quickly that we're not going to find things that are that good a fit. And by the time we finished altering it, we should just have made it. And I think in real life, I would advise people, if they've got a couple of pieces that they know are the ones that fit them perfectly, I would definitely investigate local seamstresses and tailors who can maybe copy it for you. I think the other thing is getting good alterations done. I think that's a dying thing. Menswear stores still offer that as part of the experience of buying menswear. But I think that, generally, people don't realize you can tweak your clothes in many ways to improve the fit and look of them.

More: Anastasia Steele Finds Her Strength in the Final Fifty Shades Freed Trailer

SK: How do you handle actors who are difficult? Or directors who are difficult?

SC: It's hard. You cannot argue with someone you're collaborating with. All you can do is say why you think one thing is better than another. I will humor them. So, if they propose to me something I think is not a good idea, it's very time-consuming and sometimes wasteful of money, but you have to let it play out. I will prepare what I think it should be and I will also prepare the thing they think it should be and we'll get together and try it on. I photograph everything so I create a folder of all the looks we tried on in the fitting. And hopefully, you sit down and you say, "You know, you're idea was interesting, but it doesn't quite feel like it belongs in this movie," or "It doesn't feel right for this scene, and this is why I think so." And, most of the time, they will actually say, "Yeah, you're right." But if you had tried to stop the conversation, I think you would have failed. So costume designers are the most diplomatic and patient of the collaborators in the process. We joke among ourselves that we're more psychologists than designers some of the time. You know, I'm a parent, and that's certainly made me a better designer.

I realize for many actors, it's a very vulnerable moment. They hardly know you. They met you five minutes earlier and you're going to say, "OK, let's take off your clothes and try some things on." It's very anxious-making, particularly if they've had a hard time finding the right look for themselves. They're having to trust you. And you have to be very nonconfrontational and let them know you're not there to criticize. You're there to collectively come up with something that is great on all fronts… A costume is also a psychological thing. It's not just literally the clothes they're wearing. It's how are they feeling in that scene. So that's been a hard lesson. It's been one that's involved some wasting of money and time, but I realize if they've got it in their mind that it's not right for them, let it go. Try something else. There are always many ways to say the same thing.

SK: Well, you sound like a more patient woman than I.

SC: [Laughs] I am patient. I sometimes wonder if when I realize that I'm in the last films of my career whether I'm going to get really blunt and sort of snap at people. I hear stories of famous old designers who are very blunt, and I wonder if I'll get my year where I just say, "Oh, shut up. You look fantastic."

SK: Who's been your favorite person to work with and why?

SC: You know, wow, I have quite a lot of favorites in a way. Well, I have to say Diane Keaton. I love her very much. I've done about four or five films with her. There's always the task of, like, trying to have her let go of her own unbelievable Diane Keaton style and say, "We're going to have to dial this back." But I hate to name favorites.

SK: Well, I would say if you're going to name favorites, an icon like Diane Keaton is a good one.

Book Club Diane Keaton
Image: Paramount

SC: Yes. I've just enjoyed her. Everything she wears to work every day is wonderful. You know, you see photos of her going to something in something wonderful and strange and she does it in life. That is hugely to be appreciated. It's like a gift to anyone whose path she crosses.

More: I Hated Fifty Shades of Grey, but All That Changed

SK: Have you seen a shift in sizes for women now that there seems to be more acceptance for different body types?

SC: I think there is a greater range of styles now. I think it's still disappointingly rigid in some ways... I think there's much more acceptance of different body types and many wedding dresses now have better structure built into them, and they work with women who want to cover their arms, women who aren't so young. They do cover the waterfront on that. I think that the fashion industry still has a ways to go. And I think sizing is still very restrictive, realistically, of what they offer. I hope there is a continued evolution. I think there's definitely room for improvement.

SK: Your next movie, Book Club, has so many iconic actors. Can you talk about working with them and that experience?

SC: That was wonderful. I loved that rather than being Mom, the way I feel with Dakota [Johnson of Fifty Shades Freed], I felt like I was slightly junior to everyone, which was delightful. They were all a thrill to work with. Jane Fonda, her character needed amazing clothing, and it needed to be sexy clothing and yet I did not want it inappropriately sexy for a mature woman. And that was the great challenge. But she is very bold and very willing to try looks other people would not have the confidence for. We had a lot of fittings. She's willing to give it all the time it takes to get it right. And those were priceless long hours spent together nailing it. We made quite a few things when we realized that the dress didn't exist to do exactly what we wanted. Other things we bought and altered the hell out of. She sort of knows it takes an army to look that fantastic. And she has unbelievably great posture, which is probably the greatest beauty secret of the ages. I think if you watch her walk across the room, it's a fabulous thing.

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SK: Would you consider her the most hands-on actor you've worked with?

SC: Yes. Definitely. It's almost old-school how much care and detail and time she's willing to devote to the process. I say that, but then, you know, Mary Steenburgen, who's very laid back, is the soul of goodness. We spent quite a lot of time in fittings getting the feel of her character just right. And then we made the dress she does her dance routine with Craig T. Nelson in. We spent a lot of time working on the shape for that one to make it everything we wanted it to be. I think that's what I appreciated about these mature actresses is that increasingly young actors don't really have a lot of time for you. They run in and want it to be done very quickly. And all of these ladies know that it's a process, and you're going to go at it on several different sessions and they give it all the time it needs. And they all in their own ways absolutely were open to making that happen, to make sure we got all the details right.

SK: Let’s throw it back. What did the Fifty Shades costumes bring to the characters?

SC: One of the fun parts about dressing them is they both went through changes in the course of the story, which clothing very much got a chance to address. For example, Dakota's character [Anastasia Steele] goes from a student and then a girl with her first job and a small paycheck to being a very rich man's wife… We started dressing her in much more luxurious brands and much more grown-up cuts in the way of clothing. We decided we would do a more sophisticated style for everything she wore at that point. Jamie [Dornan, who plays Christian Grey] slowly kind of went the opposite way with his character. I think he felt in the first film he had been a little too grown-up looking. And we decided we would emphasize the boyishness of this character and the fact that he had been kind of a wild young teenager and he was, after all, still a very young man. So we tried to backpedal from the serious businessman look of the first movie and lighten it all up a bit and make it all a little bit rougher — sort of make him a more contemporary figure if you will.

SK: How much did the Fifty Shades actors collaborate with you on their wardrobe?

SC: They both had very strong feelings about what they're comfortable in. Dakota in particular had very strong feelings about who her character was and what that girl would have chosen. We had an initial, early conversation where we looked at images I had pulled together that suggest the direction the character would take and she had also gathered some images on Pinterest, which she shared with me. We talked it through. From then on, we had fittings where I had gathered lots of options, and she had strong feelings looking at everything. Like, "Yes, love this. Want to try this on... No, I don't think I like that."

But Jamie more knows what he as a human being is comfortable in. He didn't really have strong feelings like, "Christian Grey wouldn't like that." He more was like, "Oh, I love this jacket. Would you get me one for my own life?" Or, "Feels great. Can I wear more of this?" So he was really coming at it like a guy knowing what he likes. He does not like fussy things. He's like a very straight-on guy, and we stuck with very classic clothing like that for him. We didn't go for the high-fashion pieces, which are full of detail and trying hard. We felt he was more of a throwaway style. One of those old-time movie stars where they don't have to overwork it.

More:Another Fifty Shades Book Is on the Way, & It Means More Christian Grey

SK: Can you talk a little bit about the big look for the film — the wedding dress?

Fifty Shades Freed wedding dress
Image: Universal Pictures

SC: Early on, the studio asked me if there was any wedding designer that would be a good fit to work with us on creating a wedding dress, and I immediately thought of Monique Lhuillier, who has a very high level of craftsmanship. And I know from working with them before on films that they're very helpful. They work with you. They're capable of going through quite a different range of style. So we approached them early on and Monique was very interested in collaborating. And that always makes a costume designer a little worried that they're going to lose control of that outfit, but it was actually a dream collaboration. It was really a dialogue between us. I had a long conversation with her about the feel of the character, the look we were going for. I sent her a look book of images we'd pulled together of something we'd hoped that dress could be, and then she sent me three different sketches she had come up with and a box of fabric swatches she proposed, which was fantastic. And we narrowed it down to the exact kind of lace we wanted to use and details we both agreed on. It was hugely Monique's work and her studio's beautiful handcraft, but she was very respectful of my input of what I also saw. We only actually got the completed dress the day before we shot the scene. I was very nervous, but I also know they really do what they do so well. It fit her like a dream. I was incredibly relieved. I think it was after work at night where Dakota had had a long day and didn't really want to come in and try on the wedding dress and I was saying, "We have to. We can't leave this until the morning. We've got to know so we can stay up and do some alterations." But she walked right into it. It was beautiful. I loved how old-fashioned it was, the dress, but you really saw the beautiful line of the body through it. And it managed to be sexy yet traditional all at the same time.

Before you go, check out this exclusive clip about the making of Anastasia's wedding dress. Fifty Shades Freed is available on iTunes, DVD, Blu-Ray and On-Demand now.

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