Interview: Louise Frogley, Costume Designer
Words by Christine Mitchell & Photo by Claudette Barius
A period film relies just as heavily on the quality of its wardrobe as it does on its actors, writers, and directors. If a film’s costumes are not accurate to the story, the film loses credibility. When building the wardrobe, the costume designer must take strategic steps in research, planning, sourcing, and creative development to create a wardrobe that is historically accurate and consistent with the overall vision of the film. Zady chats with famed costume designer Louise Frogley about her work on the film The Monuments Men. Frogley gives an insider’s look at the detail and attention that goes into her process, and the thrill of working with an incredible crew.
ZADY: Where do you begin when building the wardrobe for a cast of characters that is cohesive with the overall feel of the film?
LOUISE FROGLEY: On starting a film like The Monuments Men I usually do a week of very intensive research and set up detailed boards with all the factual information that we will need, including drawings, diagrams, swatches, photographs, and so on. We copy the boards so that everyone involved knows what we’re doing.
Z: Where do you source the accurate textiles and garments? Do you have a go-to source and manufacturer, or does it vary for each film you work on?
LF: In the case of The Monuments Men we had to have all the military fabric manufactured in Pakistan as it was the best viable source at that time. We had many of the uniforms manufactured in Poland and some in Holland. It very much depends on which manufacturers are available to us at the time we need them and can meet our order in the time allotted. We can literally go anywhere to source our needs.
Z: As a costume designer, do you find your personal style influences whatever project you’re currently working on?
LF: I’m sure I am following a design path of my own even if I don’t mean to when I do a show like The Monuments Men. In a way one’s own tastes lead the way, even if one struggles against that. Having said that, I certainly wanted a look and worked very hard to achieve it.
Z: Have you ever borrowed an outfit from the set?
LF: I’ve actually never borrowed anything from the stock as I think it would set a terrible example to everyone else. We HAVE to know where everything is at all times as we never know when something will become very important. I would take a very dim view of anybody else borrowing anything as well.
Z: What members of cast or crew did you collaborate with on the costumes for The Monuments Men?
LF: Joe Hobbs was our Military Supervisor and we worked together very harmoniously putting the whole look together. Joe had impeccable taste at all times.
Z: Do you collaborate most with the director or the screenwriter, or both?
LF: I work very closely with the director rather than with the writer. It’s important that the writer work with the director and that the information that the director chooses to give me comes from him alone or the situation could become anarchic. In this case George Clooney wrote the script, so I did work with the writer too.
Z: How closely do set designers work with costume designers to ensure everything on the stage of the film works symbiotically?
LF: It’s terribly important that I work extremely closely with the Production Designer, as his vision is the one I aim to follow. The film must look as if it all came from the same hand.
Z: Which actor(s) did you know previously, and does that make the costume process smoother?
LF: I’ve worked with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban and John Goodman before so that helps as we all know each other. I know how each actor likes to work in his fitting so it certainly smooth the whole experience out for all of us.
Z: How do you make each character appear as a nuanced individual, despite the fact that they are all wearing the same uniform?
LF: I’ve found when actors are all dressed in uniform that the best nuances come from themselves. If it’s imposed from outside then it’s not a natural thing and the actor is unlikely to sustain the look. Sometimes it’s collaboration between the actor and me. It’s all a process which is very enjoyable to see grow. It takes a day or two and becomes more pronounced when all the actors are finally assembled together in uniform. It’s usually an extension of the character that the actor has built.
Z: In a period film, how much of the costume is authentic to that time, and how much of it is recreated?
LF: As time goes by all the original clothing that we used so often in period movies is deteriorating badly. I tend to use original clothing, heavily repaired with lots of trips to the re-weavers to take out moth holes, rips and tears. I also use original pieces as patterns to make new pieces, using fabric of the period. It’s a mix of old and new, but increasingly we are making new pieces. I collect period textiles as much as I can for that reason. And period buttons and trims - they make such a difference.
Z: As a designer, do you have any “signatures” or things that you do for every movie you work on despite the era or style?
LF: I don’t care for the idea of a signature look from the designer unless it’s some sort of highly stylized movie. In a semi-documentary movie (which is what I seem to do quite often) all I want is for the look to be authentic and textured. I like finding odd looks that we might not have expected but that are entirely correct and have been forgotten. Research is so important and so is being able to read and understand what is in the documented photographs.
Z: What was the biggest take-away from your experience on The Monuments Men?
LF: This was a wonderful film to work on … such generous and nice actors and such a good atmosphere. I loved being in Berlin and working there. It’s an inspirational place and the German crew was marvelous.