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Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes)

Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): La La Land costume designer breaks down the 'classic, timeless' looks

Mary Zophres details how Mia’s wardrobe feels both nostalgic and appropriately modern

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Dale Robinette

La La Land (now in select theaters) is loaded with nostalgic nods to Old Hollywood, though it’s set in modern day and based in that reality. The musical love story about an aspiring jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and actress, Mia (Emma Stone), strikes that balance perfectly — and that extends to the wardrobe, especially Mia’s. Here, costume designer Mary Zophres reveals how she brought magic to the screen with her classic, charming selections.  

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La La Land has its fantastical elements — but Mary Zophres didn’t want Mia’s clothes to be one of them. “My favorite thing, people have been coming up to me who have either seen the movie or seen the previews and they’re like, ‘Where did you get that dress?’ That makes me happy, because they feel like you could buy it in a store.”

With that in mind, Zophres — whose recent credits include Hail, Caesar!, Interstellar, and Inside Llewyn Davis — took a flattering, uncomplicated approach to Mia. “I think [Emma] has such a great figure… and she looks good in clothes, she knows how to work them,” she says. “I also didn’t want to overdesign it, and she actually looks better in things that are simple.”

She adds that there’s a progression to Mia’s dresses: There’s more volume to them as the film goes on. “When she was spinning or dancing, you got a more effect of like a period film, but I tried to balance reality,” she says. “We did have to make these dresses, but I didn’t want to make them fancy. The green dress, for instance, we made it, but in my mind, I’m like ‘Okay, she could’ve bought it in a vintage store.’ Or her first blue dress, to me, looks like maybe it’s from H&M or the dress department in Bloomingdale’s.”

Zophres had to make the dresses that Stone dances in — and note, Zophres and director Damien Chazelle felt strongly that she should always dance in a dress or skirt — partly because some items were just hard to come by. “When we went shopping for the film and I went out into all the stores, everything was black,” she says. Not exactly ideal for an explosively colorful film. “It was very difficult to find a color that I liked and that I wanted.”

That said, Stone does wear some store-bought items. “I also wanted to make sure that she dressed in her normal life,” Zophres explains, so there’s a mix of vintage and cost-friendly stores, including a $5 shirt from H&M.

Then there are the shoes, most of which are fairly standard except for the dance shoes she changes into for her magic hour dance duet with Sebastian. “[Choreographer Mandy Moore] had done this dance move where they move their feet in unison and I looked at Damien, and this was the first week of prep, and I said, ‘Okay, they have to have matching shoes or the same color shoes or something because you need that graphic impact.’ It makes me smile every time I see that in the film,” Zophres says.

And Chazelle was totally on board with Zophres’ vision: “What he finds romantic and beautiful is a more feminine perspective, to be honest with you, than a lot of male directors,” she explains. “It was never, ‘Can you show more leg?’ He really appreciates a beautiful neckline. He understood what I was doing with Emma, exposing certain parts of her arms and her neck, and he responded so positively.”

Zophres concludes, “Going to real stores and mixing it with things that we bought or that we could have conceivably bought but we made instead was how I tried to infuse it with a modern sensibility… bringing in things that were really from Los Angeles in 2016.” She recalls how popular ’90s attire was last summer when she was shopping, but that wasn’t right for Mia. “It was not conducive to the look we were going for in the film, which was more classic, timeless. We didn’t want to date the film — like if you look at it, it looks more timeless than anything — so that’s what I was going for: timeless as opposed to too vintage looking or too 2016.”

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