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A Stylish 'Butler'

Costume designer Ruth Carter on creating looks for the historical drama ”Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

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With just a few months to design 250 costumes for a film spanning more than 80 years, Ruth Carter says there wasn’t time to be starstruck by the actors she wardrobed for The Butler (out Aug. 16): ”After five minutes of ‘Wow, Oprah just walked into my fitting room!’ you go, ‘Okay, she’s not here to interview me, she’s here to be [transformed] into her character.”’

The First Ladies’ Club
”We found some wonderful pieces, and then researched fabrics from the ’60s and had them made over again,” says Carter, who scoured costume houses and vintage stores like Beverly Hills’ Paper Bag Princess to re-create iconic dresses worn by Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda). ”It was a crazy process.”

Illustrated History
In addition to the real-life couple on whom the story is based, costume sketches for Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), were inspired by old issues of Ebony and classic TV series like Julia and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Fashion Time Travel
Carter worked on the Butler costumes in between filming Disney Channel’s Teen Beach Movie and Spike Lee’s Oldboy. ”Even though the bikini became the big rage in the ’60s, I couldn’t use them in Teen Beach Movie because of standards and practices,” the designer says of creating the G-rated wardrobe for the TV movie. Fast-forward to Oldboy, a highly stylized film based on Japanese manga. ”I had to elevate my mind out of the period genre that I had been in for so long and go right into high-fashion couture. [Director] Spike Lee had an aesthetic that was well beyond what we could afford…so I had to build most of it.”