With a subject like Marilyn Monroe and stars including Michelle Williams and Emma Watson to dress, award-winning costume designer Jill Taylor certainly had her work cut out for her with the super stylish biographical drama, My Week With Marilyn! We caught up with Jill to talk all things Marilyn, Michelle and film magic…
The first time we see Michelle as Marilyn she's the iconic stage star in a glitzy figure-hugging dress but much of the film sees her wearing more casual clothes. What was it like looking into the more private Marilyn style?
Well I had been a huge fan of hers since I was a child and had loads of books on her so I knew that she had a very different style to the iconic creature that we all know and love. Looking more closely at it she was the Calvin Klein girl before there was Calvin Klein because she was way ahead of her time in her personal styling. During that period women were much more, in their everyday life, put together and she was very casual, very simple. I think she dressed for comfort. I wanted to bring that to the film, that she had a simplicity, an ease about her and a casualness, which obviously she didn’t in her professional life.
There are hundreds of photographs and film reels of Marilyn but did you find yourself working from any particular reference?
Yes, in our story she’d just got married to Arthur Miller, about three months before she came to London and there are lots of photographs of her on her honeymoon with him. There was a picture reference of her wearing a man’s shirt and a pencil skirt, which I drew upon that to do the shirt and skirt that you see in the movie. She was very much into simple skirts and men’s shirts, and she always looked great in them. Again, I’ve got a great picture of her at the Actors Studio wearing this fantastic cream chunky cardigan with a t-shirt and a pair of white capri pants. There was also one scene when [Michelle as Marilyn] is in a car and she’s got a black chiffon headscarf and there was a coat I did for her that was actually in the Sotheby’s catalogue. We reproduced that coat, which was like an oatmeal silk coat with a black velvet collar, and we made it into a jacket for Michelle, rather than a coat.
Michelle gets the movement and the nuances just right. How much do you think costume helps actors get into character?
I think it must help. I think when you stand there as an actress with your hair and make-up and the costume on, it’s got to have an effect, because you’re not looking at yourself anymore. I think with [Michelle’s] underwear, and just the styling and the form fitting clothes that she was wearing, it does make you walk in a different way. It makes you hold yourself differently. Michelle put huge amounts of time into researching her movement so I think that coupled with the costume, I think, was a help.
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It's been said that director Simon Curtis was moved to tears on first seeing Michelle in full costume and make-up, is that true?
That came from me! He’s going to kill me when he sees me! Not quite tears but he got emotional. I wouldn’t want to say that he was blubbing, he wasn’t. But he did get very emotional about it. On a film we always do wardrobe tests before we start filming, and the first time she got her hair and make-up done and she was in her costume he was so excited because he’d been working on this project for about seven years and to see it come to fruition, he just said to me: “I’m really emotional.” And I said: “Well you’re making me emotional, so stop!” But he was lovely, it was great to witness. Just his excitement and his passion, which rubbed off on everybody.
How closely did you work with Michelle? Is the design process something that the actor can contribute to?
Oh well yes, I welcome that. I love that, when I have an actor who wants input. A lot of actors don’t, and it’s actually much harder. [Michelle] would bring picture reference, all of the things she liked about Marilyn, so we would sit down and talk and I did sketches for her and it was a collaboration about what she thought she would like to wear and what I thought. And then, bless her, she had to put up with long fittings, which took up a lot of her time.
Do you have a favourite costume from the film?
I don’t know that I had a favourite, I’m always very critical of my work so I think in terms of success. I was very pleased with the white dress that she wore in The Prince and the Showgirl because I had a fitting photograph of Marilyn with the costume designer from The Prince and the Showgirl, a back view of her, and I took the same view of Michelle and it was pretty good, it was very good actually, so I was very pleased that was successful. That dress was quite intricate to make. I was kind of relieved with it and we only had the one dress, no doubles, so [Michelle] had to work in the dress for eleven days! I was absolutely wetting myself, everyday, because I thought if something happens to this dress, we’re absolutely screwed. Poor Michelle had to endure us running to her every time she had a drink, we were just throwing a robe around her because we so frightened something would happen to the dress.
Was there a particular outfit that Michelle mentioned was her favourite to wear?
I think Michelle enjoyed wearing the skirt and the shirt. She liked the black dress that she wore. She pretty much liked it all but I think she particularly liked those two.
The comparative styles of Vivien and Sybil and Marilyn are fascinating, do you think there was a clear difference between American and British style at the time?
Oh yes, definitely. And that was one of the things I wanted to highlight in the film, and with the guys as well. There was a different style, there were different fabrics used. We had not long been out of rationing in this country, after World War 2, so did not have as much as the American. Vivien Leigh is probably not the best example because she had things made in France and was exquisitely dressed but in terms of your average person, or your average British film star, it was a very different style. I hope I brought that to the screen.
And Emma Watson's character comes across as slightly naïve but fashion conscious. How did you go about defining her character through costume?
I’d found, in my research, an original cast and crew photograph of The Prince and the Showgirl. Emma was based on a real character and so there was a girl, or a couple of girls, that we could have chosen [from the photograph] so I just picked up on one girl and I based Emma on her because she feasibly could’ve been her. She was wearing a tartan dress, so I found Emma an original tartan dress – all of Emma’s clothes were vintage. I also wanted to introduce a touch of the American influence with Emma because the youth culture was just hitting at that period and we had Jimmy Dean, Marlon Brando, Sandra Dee. I wanted to pick up on that Sandra Dee type of character.
You've also worked with Scarlett Johansson on Match Point and Gwyneth Paltrow on Sliding Doors - do you prefer working on fiction-based characters or ones from real life?
Real life is a challenge because you have a responsibility to represent that person correctly, so it’s a different challenge. I did something a few years ago on Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland and Charlize Theron played Britt Ekland. It was a real research project to represent them in the most accurate way possible, or certainly to get the essence of them correct. You have a little bit more freedom if you just have a fictional character. I equally like both, I like mixing it up, I like doing all of it really. As long as I have some variety it’s good.
My Week With Marilyn is released in cinemas Friday 25 November
By Sarah Smith