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Benjamin Button costuming secrets

Brad Pitt calls Jacqueline West, costume designer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a “method costumer.” The DVD and Blu-ray landed in stores May 5, when West took a few moments at her studio to talk to us about the magic of Brad Pitt, his latest movie and the mastery of director David Fincher.

West first burst onto the costuming scene with her delightful work on Henry and June. That highly stylized picture met its match in a costume designer who was fulfilling her destiny.

West’s mother was a huge influence on the costume designer. In honor of the Benjamin Button DVD release and Mother’s Day, West tells us how the child of an avant garde designer landed in Hollywood working with Brad Pitt and earning Oscar nominations. Her latest nomination is her proudest: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Curious costuming

SheKnows: Designing for a film like Benjamin Button, where you are going through the eras — does that provide a unique challenge for you?


Queenie and Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button

Jacqueline West: You pretty much approach the decades the way you would approach a film set in one decade. You do the research for that period of time for the different walks of life that you’re portraying. The biggest challenge in doing a movie of this scope that takes place through almost 100 years of different clothing styles and fashions is to keep the integrity of each character throughout each period. Queenie is a young girl when the film starts, and she dies in her 80s — yet she is the same person, even though fashions and economic situations are changing. You want to keep the integrity of that character. Her wardrobe, in particular, is based on hand-me-downs from people who had lived in the Nolan house and died there. She would probably take their clothes and make them hers. They would become Queenie’s. The same with Brad’s wardrobe up until he inherits the button factory. You want to make sure in any movie that you know the characters really well from the inside out. They’re picking the clothes. They say when you know a character well enough, they dress themselves. I really feel that.

Queenie and Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button through David Fincher's eyes

SheKnows: I assume you meet with the actors. Did Brad or Cate ever add their two cents?

Jacqueline West:  I had done my homework. I had read the script so many times. I knew the characters inside out like an onion skin. When I finally got the actors, they counted on me to help with the characterizations. I’ve always felt that wardrobe is the first place an actor starts feeling his character. It’s the bridge to the character for any actor. It’s the first time they start feeling inside that character’s skin. Really good actors like Brad and Cate know, when they put something on, if it’s right. They stand differently. Sometimes with Brad, I gave him choices within the same feeling. He’d try two or three on and say, ‘This feels really good, Jackie.’ You can see it; they start changing. He’s no longer Brad Pitt. Cate’s no longer Cate; she’s become Daisy. Then you know you’ve hit it.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett go for a ride in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt as seen by Jacqueline WestBrad’s costume soulmate

SheKnows: Many a press weekend for Hollywood’s biggest and best films share one aspect: The actors always say, ‘When I put on the costume, I was that character.’Jacqueline West: It’s so important. Brad calls me a method costumer [laughs]. That’s because I get so into the character. I’ve worked with him twice now, and I do try to do that. The biggest service you can do for an actor is to reveal his inner riches. That’s the first help the actor gets.SheKnows: For you as a designer, where were your first influences in fashion on this film and in general over your career?Jacqueline West: I guess I had two really big influences in my life: My mother, who was a fashion designer in the late 40s, early 50s. I thought about her a lot designing this film, especially Cate’s wardrobe of that period. She was a big fan of Claire McCardell, really dressing the avant garde American woman. I used Claire McCardell a lot for Cate in the late 40s and early 50s.Another huge influence has been Philip Kaufman, who gave me my start in this business. I worked first on Henry and June with him, and then I did three other films. He’s such a character-driven director. He really influenced me on how I approach dressing actors.SheKnows: Director David Fincher –very few auteurs capture a vision as he does. Of course, the costumes are a big part of that. What was it like working on a David Fincher film?Jacqueline West: David is the most supportive, collaborative and accessible director I’ve ever worked with, and he’s a perfectionist. He gave time to every department head to get exactly the look. He sees the big picture. He has such a vision. He lived with Benjamin Button for so many years that, knowing the kind of mind he has, he saw the whole movie to the end from the beginning. He knew everything you see on screen had to be as he imagined it. He was so precise.

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