Phantom Thread’s Costume Designer On Inspiration, Symbolism And Paul Thomas Anderson

Phantom Thread was probably the biggest surprise at the Oscars nominations announcement – receiving six nods including the big categories Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson) and Best Picture. Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread tells the fictitious story of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock who falls in love with his muse Alma (Vicky Krieps). Naturally, the costumes, created by Mark Bridges, are a massive part of the visually stunning film. Bridges has already won an Oscar for The Artist in 2012 and has worked on all eight of Anderson’s feature films including the cult classic Boogie Nights. We had the chance to speak to Bridges and ask him about his inspiration, working with Anderson and his favourite fashion decade…

All costumes in Phantom Thread are entirely original – can you talk us through the process of how you started working on this film?

Having worked closely with Paul Thomas Anderson for all these years, I’m lucky enough to receive his scripts very early on in the process. It usually starts by me sitting down with Paul and him showing me photographers or films he’s been looking at, or he’ll say ‘read this biography about Balenciaga’. Then, I look at the script and try to put a visual to his written words. I’ll come back to him with that and we go back-and-forth to talk about colours and so on. It’s a total collaboration. We try to absorb the period as a whole, find out as much as we can about it and really get into that mindset.

What was your main source of inspiration?

It’s always a constant process of gathering inspiration. I sometimes think of it as collaging. Paul does the same with his scriptwriting – there’s a little bit of a character’s DNA here and then an episode from another character there – so it becomes original in that way. We collage into the richness of our research and then cherry-pick what’s relevant to what we’re doing. For Phantom Thread Paul and I went to the Victoria and Albert archives and looked at some original gowns from Balenciaga and Victor Stiebel, House of Worth, John Cavanagh and Norman Hartnell. But anything can be inspiring – whether it’s paintings, backstage pictures at a 1950s fashion show or odd little films that have fashion shows in them. Of course the script itself gives you so much information to pursue, or a way to chose costumes that tell a story. It’s all of that on top of the clothes being lovely to look at.

Paul Thomas Anderson and Mark Bridges

You and Paul Thomas Anderson have a long working relationship – what is it that makes you such a good team?

We just get each other. We get where the other person is coming from creatively and feed off of each other. He always gives me interesting challenges and visions to bring to life in 3-D. We have an enormous amount of respect for each other. We like the same things. It’s a wonderful back and forth. We’ve worked together for 22 years and on eight films – I recently watched all of our work together and I’m amazed at how fertile his mind is. There is no end to his curiosity about life and emotions and relationships in the world. I’m really proud to be a part of that.

Was it a different creating costumes that look like they were designed by a fashion designer?

There’s a fashion show in the film, and Paul had asked that we do a spring collection. I had to consider what that meant in that time and place for a designer and step into Reynolds Woodcock’s shoes a little bit – but then also had to try and say something about him as a person by the choice of fabrics or accessories. You’re always making choices that all lead back to who, what, where and when.

Was it a challenge to create dresses for both sides of Alma – her personal wardrobe and Woodcock’s designs for her? What is the main difference between them?

You know it’s so funny, it actually wasn’t a challenge at all. On the one hand we have a young girl of limited means and taste, and on the other we have a love letter from Reynolds to Alma. Especially the first dress he makes for her. He saw something in her and created a garment that would make her blossom. For me to be able to create this, I had to be in Alma’s headspace and her situation and then I had to also be in Reynolds headspace. I actually loved it, it was so wonderful to design with other people’s mindsets. All the while serving Paul’s – and then of course making myself happy at some point.

Is there any symbolism in the dresses that relate to the storyline?

We’re always trying to tell a story, whether that’s what it was like for Alma to live in a small fishing village or the choice of colour of what she wears on her first date with Reynolds. We chose the red dress as a way of showing that this girl is no shrinking violet and is going headlong into a relationship with this handsome man.

What’s your favourite dress in the film?

Well, I think it has to be the lavender dress we do the photoshoot with. It’s made of antique lace and satin and then it has this big tulle stole with it. We shot it in this wonderful place in London and it just sang when Vicky put it on. That silk satin and this very unique flemish lace from the 17th century together really knocks your eye out when you see it in person. I was really, really pleased with it. There’s a motivation and a reason for why he choses these fabrics – he’s saved this lace from the war and has finally found someone to use it on – so the dress also has a backstory, which makes it even more special.

What is your favourite decade in terms of fashion?

When I did The Master it was 1950s in America, now it’s 1955 in London and I honestly am falling in love with the ’50s. There’s so many things that go on in that decade. I used to call the 50s ”the ’40s without shoulder pads”. I would love to do something from the end of the ’50s because that’s when it all changes again, and starts getting modern and hinting at what the ’60s would become.

How did you get into costume design in the first place?

I was always involved in theatre and performed myself, but I also did sketches for my own costumes. I remember I did a sketch for what I was going to wear in a high school play. It was always there with me. Halloween was my favourite holiday and I always made things for that too. Then I went on to working in the costume shop next to performing. At some point the costume just took over because it was everything that I naturally was attracted to and loved doing. Whether it was fabric, colour, dyeing, dramaturgy, history, social studies, drawing or painting – that’s all in this job. I have pursued that for all my life and haven’t had any other job since. I’ve been pretty lucky.

Phantom Thread is out in cinemas now.