When “Widows” costume designer Jenny Eagan first met the film’s director Steve McQueen, it was a few years ago in New Orleans. “He doesn’t remember it, but he was finishing ‘12 Years a Slave’ and I was just starting ‘True Detective’ at the time.”
For “Widows,” the pair spent more time than is typical taking in the film’s Chicago setting. Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as a group of widows who reluctantly team up for the heist of their lives, the city is more than just a location. Eagan and McQueen wanted specifics.
“Oftentimes as costume designers we don’t go on a locations scout,” said Eagan. “But it was very important to Steve that we drive around so I could see, where is (Rodriguez’s) Linda from? Where is (Debicki’s) Alice living? Where is (Davis’) Veronica’s apartment? And by doing that, you get a feel of what’s comfortable in that neighborhood — socioeconomically and visually.”
The three aforementioned widows live in neighborhoods spread across the city.
According to a publicist for the film: Alice lives on the Northwest Side in the Dunning neighborhood; Linda is based in Humboldt Park on the West Side (with her quinceañera shop located in West Town); and Veronica’s apartment is in the Gold Coast in one of the Mies van der Rohe buildings at 860 N. Lake Shore Drive.
“I would talk to people in each neighborhood,” Eagan said. “Where do they shop? That’s how I like to think about it: If I lived here, what’s around? Where would I shop? What can I afford? So the clothes were bought here. I went into all the boutiques, or I would go to the neighborhoods and check out their thrift stores.”
I talked with Eagan about key characters and how their wardrobes help to tell the story.
(Note: Mild spoilers follow; if you have yet to see the film, best to save or bookmark this piece for later.)
For Viola Davis as Veronica
Q: What is Veronica’s look?
A: She’s the ringleader, so: Practical, powerful, expensive. She’s a very confident character on the outside. She used to lobby for the teachers union, so she knows how to present herself to others and there’s a professional side to how she dresses. Its striking — but not overbearing. Beautiful stuff, and she just wears it so well. If I saw Veronica on the street I’d be like, “Wow, she’s got it together.”
Viola was coming off her television show (“How to Get Away with Murder”) and she plays an attorney on that, which is also power-dressing. She wears a lot of dresses on the show and I just thought, this character does not. Women in Veronica’s position, they wear a lot of pants these days. It’s Stella McCartney and Michael Kors Collection. I believe one of her coats, the blue coat, is Balenciaga.
Q: The clean, tailored lines of her wardrobe match the clean lines of her apartment.
A: That was purposely done. Once I saw that apartment — you kind of have to match the character to where they live. A lot of us do that anyway, our personal style comes into our living space. For that apartment, Steve really wanted the white and the stark and the clean to convey the money, basically.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: Initially it’s a lot of white, like that white skirt suit. And by the end that shifts to all black. Her arc is about getting down to business. She knows what’s going on, so her clothing gets darker.
Q: That shift makes sense for the story — they’re in black for the heist — but it also has thematic resonance because she learns some dark truths.
A: In terms of the white, I was thinking: Her hands aren’t dirty yet. For all we know, she’s clean and she knows nothing about what her husband’s business really was. Either that — or she’s putting that persona on. Angelic, clean, I have nothing to do with this.
Q: Even her dog is all white!
A: By the way, there’s no way I could wear a white suit like that. The way I drink coffee, the way I do anything, there’s no way. But I see a woman like that and I think, “Man, she’s knows how to handle herself.” The skirt suit is Alexander McQueen.
Q: The movie deals with so many different nuanced issues, including race. Before she was widowed, Veronica was married to a white man (Liam Neeson) and she eventually learns information that completely alters what she thought she knew about him and their life together — and some of that is bound up in race. I’m wondering if Veronica’s all-black wardrobe is also a symbolic way of showing her embrace her blackness and reject the proximity to whiteness she had through her husband.
A: I think that’s a fair interpretation. I love that scene of Brian Tyree Henry in her apartment when he’s walking out and just gets in her face and says: “Welcome back.” Like, you tried to escape your blackness — but your husband’s gone now, this life is over and I’m going to take the money you owe me.
Especially as a white woman, I’m asking myself: Am I going to understand? And I have to hope they (McQueen and Davis) help me through it.
Q: That’s interesting — how do you approach any job so that when you’re envisioning the looks for a black character or a Latina character, say, you don’t come with inaccurate preconceptions or inadvertently fall into stereotypes?
A: It’s a good question. Do we express ourselves differently based on culture? Probably so. Will I understand that? And do I need help in understanding that? I’ll ask the actors: “Tell me what you think. What are your feelings?” In any movie you do, you want to hear their voice. And then we work on it together.
Q: Viola Davis wears her hair natural in the film and it’s short, so her earrings really stand out. There’s a pair of gold stick earrings that are unusual and amazing. They create this illusion that a vertical stick of gold is literally speared through each of her earlobes. I couldn’t even figure out how the earrings worked.
A: They look like a tiny tree branch, right? Paula Mendoza is the designer. Normally you put an earring in from the front to the back, and these went from the back to the front. So the post came through from the back — and the stopper, for lack of a better word, was what you saw in the front and it looks like the top of the stick.
For Elizabeth Debicki as Alice
Q: What is Alice’s look?
A: Alice isn’t dressing for Alice, she’s dressing for the men in her life and initially that’s her husband. He wanted her to look a certain way: Sexy. So it’s all about the excess. Tacky, for lack of a better word. It’s all flash. It’s deliberately trying to show the money. And it’s the complete opposite of Veronica — so Alice would shop at the mall verses Veronica, who would shop at a high-end designer boutique.
Q: Her centerpiece outfit in the film is a gold bandage Herve Leger dress. That style of dress has become something of a staple, but I get the sense it’s become sort of passe or dated to people who really pay attention to fashion.
A: In my mind, it was her mom who went out and bought her that dress thinking: “This is what’s sexy to men.” Showing her body, that’s what is important because it will get her what she wants. Again, it’s gold so it’s got that flash. The dress is so impractical for everything — when she walks in the warehouse they’re like, “What are you wearing?” She looks like walking sex, and that’s what we were trying to portray in the beginning. She has no self-confidence whatsoever. And she uses her body — or the way that she looks — as a way to get money.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: As she starts coming into her own we see her in jeans and a leather jacket. The prints are gone and it’s more monochromatic. The attention goes away from her body and to her face and her mind. She starts to take away all the layers of excess and it becomes simplified.
Veronica’s look is pretty steady throughout, aside and the arc of the color change. But for both Alice and Linda, they start becoming grounded and their wardrobe becomes more practical.
And in the final scene, we see Alice in that camel coat. She’s more confident and she’s doesn’t have that need to stand out in quite the same way anymore. She doesn’t need that garish, flashy look.
(Earlier this month Debicki told Vulture: “I know it sounds really flippant, but when we picked out the outfit, I remember saying to my costume designer, ‘It’s so nice to think of her going to like Bloomingdales and buying a coat.’ She had nothing.”)
For Michelle Rodriguez as Linda
Q: What is Linda’s look?
A: Confident but also more feminine than we usually see Michelle Rodriguez, so a lot of florals early on. She also wears dresses in the beginning, which is softer. She’s a mother and she’s running her own business, so she needs clothing that has ease and simplicity on a daily basis. She’s the last person who you’d see in a white suit, in other words. She doesn’t have the time or money to go out and buy expensive clothes. Her wardrobe isn’t going to catch your eye and she doesn’t need it to.
Q: That softer, feminine look in the beginning matches her quinceañera dress shop, which is a very feminine space.
A: Right, and that was a really interesting thing for Michelle because I don’t know if we’ve ever seen her like that.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: We start seeing an edge to her. Her look gets harder. These guys took her business! So she starts wearing jeans and jackets.
There’s a symmetry to her look and Alice’s look — that was something we wanted to show. Towards the middle and into the end, they’re becoming a team and kind of mirroring each other in their clothing. And you see people tend to do that with their friends, they all have a similar taste or style.
For Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme
Q: Jatemme’s standout look is a leather shirt-jacket with just the top button fastened.
A: Again, monochromatic. Sleek. Strong. It was almost a uniform. There’s power but it’s understated. Everything is expensive but he doesn’t need to show flash for everyone to know who he is.
His look is cool — obviously he pays attention and he has style — but it’s also: I’m all business.
That jacket you mention, that’s a jacket in the shape of a shirt. It was like his power suit. It’s made by Theory. There was something so simple and striking about it. I didn’t want anything with lots of pockets or accoutrements. I didn’t want anything to distract from his eyes. So there was a very pale gray one that he’s wearing when he’s in the cemetery, and then he has a darker one when he’s in the gymnasium and the kids are rapping. It’s the same jacket just in different colors.
Q: If he had worn the jacket open, it would have been a looser look — and that character is anything but loose.
A: He did that during the fitting — he snapped that top button — and it was like yes, that’s it. It gave him Jatemme’s confidence and the walk. Sometimes those happy accidents happen and you’re like, that’s perfect.