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Jessica Chastain, who plays opposite Pitt in “The Tree of Life,” agrees West’s genius is her attention to authenticity, right down to the underpinnings.
“She created a situation where we had a room and we had all these costumes that worked for my character and in the morning I would show up and she wanted me to approach it like it was my character’s closet,” the actress explains. “So I would go in and depending on what I was filming and what the mood was, I would then choose the dress. Of course, it was all approved, but it really made me feel like, I was playing this woman and I was going in and choosing what I was going to wear for the day, which was really powerful as an actress.”
Chastain’s wardrobe in the film included a dark blue iridescent taffeta dress from the Fifties that West bought that at an antique clothing show in Los Angeles. West, who remains on set throughout the duration of the filming of the movies she works on, often gets fashion designers to recreate looks for films. She worked with Alexander McQueen for pieces for Kidman in “The Invasion,” and even borrowed pieces from the Levi’s museum for Pitt to wear in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” For the more contemporary storyline in “The Tree of Life,” in which Sean Penn plays the grown son of Pitt’s character, West collaborated with Giorgio Armani on a wardrobe of suits, shirts and neckwear.
West was given eight weeks to create the Fifties-era wardrobe for “Tree of Life,” working with a small team made up of an assistant designer, a supervisor, two set costumers, a personal assistant and an ager/dyer, who was hired to make pieces look lived in.
“(Malick) likes things monochromatic and dark and sepia toned: He likes the faces to stand out,” she says. “So it was a lot of overdyeing old striped T-shirts for the boys. I had to use new jeans in boxes from the Fifties, and it was really washing and sanding and rubbing and making them look they’d be worn and played in, frayed, how boy’s jeans get.”
For Chastain’s character, she says she wanted to represent an era that for many women was not about fashion, but having a certain dignity without having a lot of money.
“They had very few clothes,” West says. “But I remember my mother being a housewife in that same era. She would try to take her apron off and change when my dad came home for dinner at night, maybe put on a fresh housedress, not the one she did her housework in.”
Making appropriate choices that are right for the character, and also right for the times and the film, is the main challenge.
“We don’t make documentaries,” West says. “People go to see movies partially for their beauty, even if the beauty is ugliness. I feel that I get my job right if I get to the bottom of character and dress them appropriately, reveal their inner riches.”