Angela Weiss/Getty Images; Everett Collection
September 19, 2017 at 10:15 AM EDT

In the 20 years since its debut, L.A. Confidential still dares you to find a film more stylish and evocative.

Based on James Ellroy’s novel of the same, the film follows three LAPD detectives — Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Bud White (Russell Crowe), and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) — in an increasingly corrupt 1950s Los Angeles. When a call girl who resembles Veronica Lake (Kim Basinger) gets involved, things really get complicated. Conceived as an homage to classic noir films of the 1940s and ’50s, Curtis Hanson crafted a film that both paid tribute to the classics of the genre and earned a place alongside them.

Gossip reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) mentions in the movie’s opening lines how Hollywood and Los Angeles’ essential identity depend on “selling an image.” With its crisp suits and glamorous classic-Hollywood-inspired looks, the film buys into that directive completely. Costume designer Ruth Myers sat down with EW to discuss what it was like constructing a seedy mid-century Los Angeles with a veneer of glamour.

Myers says the process was one of the most collaborative she’s ever experienced (then or since). She, Hanson, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall spent weeks together watching a litany of B-movies selected by Hanson and immersing themselves in the period prior to shooting. “They were films I’d never heard of with actors I’d never heard of,” she says. From the first, she and Hanson were committed to storytelling over replicating. “We talked about conceptualizing the period,” she says. “It was very clear to me that what he wanted was to look at the period rather than to slavishly reproduce the period.”

For Myers, that meant working one-on-one with actors to find looks that both evoked the era and allowed audiences to form a meaningful connection with the characters. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful it looks and how accurate it is… if you lose the audience, there’s no point,” she says. “It’s so easy for clothes to look like costumes. I’ve never been interested in the idea of high fashion. I’m not really interested in making people look beautiful. I’m interested in telling stories.”

The costumes of L.A. Confidential have many stories to tell — and Myers walked us through some of her most memorable designs that still have us swooning 20 years later.

Jack Vincennes

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Of all the policemen in L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes is by far the most stylish guy in the LAPD. With an assortment of loud, over-the-top ties and slick bright white suits, his wardrobe belies his obsession with his role as a “celebrity crimestopper” and technical advisor to the Dragnet-inspired Badge of Honor. “The white jacket of Kevin Spacey’s is outrageous,” Myers says. “If you look at the research of detectives of that era, they were sort of the glamour boys of the time. They did make make good money, and they were really very, very loud. We have a lot of research, and I was like ‘My God, is this what they were wearing to work?’ They were peacocks.”

Ruth Myers

Myers says that she used a famous ’40s/’50s white fabric with a “slight slub” in it to make Vincennes’ custom white suits because it was something she had seen a lot in the suits on Dragnet. “Kevin was so up for the glamour of it,” she says. “There are not an enormous amount of actors who would have been able to pull that off, and he was able to pull it off so it became organically his character.”

White, Exley, and Vincennes

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The three detectives fighting for justice in an unjust world all live by their own unique moral codes and Myers took care to differentiate them through their clothing. Bud White (Russell Crowe) wears exclusively brown suits, while Exley (Guy Pearce) is seen in uniform shades of navy and grey. “For Bud, I just saw him in browns,” says Myers. “He’s a bit of an unmade bed, and I just had always seen those browny tones as earthy. In the world of these rather flamboyant detectives, I wanted him to look unadorned and brown sort of always felt right. And he is someone with a heart — he’s the only one in the whole film with a heart, so to give him that sense of earthy warmth seemed important.” With Exley, “the greys, the blues, there’s a kind of coldness there and also a uniformity,” she explains.

Vincennes (Spacey) wears flashy white suits for the first half of the film, but when he realizes he may be inadvertently responsible for the death of an innocent actor, he mends his ways and begins to fight for justice. Myers purposely wanted his clothes to reflect this change of heart: “With Jack it would have been a conscious choice, I don’t think it’s just random. With what he’s trying to do would have come the idea of uniformity.”

Exley’s Glasses

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Even more so than his suits, Exley’s glasses are key to his character. In the film, veteran detectives advise Exley to remove his specs (as they believe them to signal a weakness not befitting their “dirty work”) and he is sure to take them off when he proudly poses for a photo after making a major bust. Myers says that the glasses were so crucial, especially given film’s reliance on close-up, that she, Pearce, and Hanson went through 185 similar pairs before landing on the perfect choice. “They were slightly less in your face,” she says of the pair they chose. “Those are a really good analogy for his character — the thin wire, rather determined, not quite fashionable enough.”

Paying Tribute to the Classics

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“There were a lot of homages because the film itself was an homage,” Myers says. “It felt very right to address those and love them and respect them. “The film is dripping with sartorial nods to classic Hollywood: Lynn Bracken’s beret and coat, resembling Lauren Bacall’s in The Big Sleep (above); replicated real-life looks of Lana Turner; Dragnet, used as a reference point for Jack Vincennes; Lynn’s white blouse and scarf, evoking Audrey Hepburn when she goes to see Roman Holiday. “The reference was so glamorous, it gave you this diving board to jump from,” explains Myers.

In the case of Lynn Bracken, she was explicitly dressed to resemble 1940s movie star Veronica Lake as a key plot point, so Myers also specifically looked to Lake for inspiration. “They all came from [my] looking at stars of the era and going for what seemed the most beautiful, the most wonderful, and the most exotic looks you could get,” Myers said of Lynn’s clothes. “What you have to remember is she’s dealing with fantasy — and this is not even a film star. This is someone who is supposed to look better than a film star.”

Lynn Bracken

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Throughout the film, Lynn wears shades of green and white, which is how Myers said she always imagined Veronica Lake’s wardrobe. “This negligee [on the left] was eau de nil, and I had a very strong feeling of Veronica Lake in eau de nil, but I doubt that I’d ever seen that because you’d only ever seen the black and white,” she says. “But the thing about black and white films is they’re so colorful. What I would be sure is eau de nil, you might think would be mauve — it’s very fascinating, it’s a very personal experience.”

Myers says she was also intent on playing up Lynn’s enigmatic persona through her wardrobe. “They all have a sheen, so she always slightly shimmers,” she says of her gowns. “Half of that is you wanted this sort of shine and the other is I wanted you to almost feel you couldn’t touch her. There was something there that was almost like looking through glass at her or looking through a gauze, so that you didn’t quite feel you could put your hands on her.”

She enhanced this effect by building corsets and stiff boning into all of Bracken’s outfits to give them a precise shape, despite this not being accurate to the period. “I wanted the clothes not to cling to her body,” she says. “I wanted them almost on an hourglass figure. I wanted her to look voluptuous, but not fleshy. I wanted you not to get a sense of creases. Again, it’s almost like a film star image in a real person.”

Lynn’s Cloak

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It’s one of the most striking wardrobe introductions to a character onscreen — Bud White walks into a liquor store and at the counter is a woman entirely cloaked in black velvet, who turns her head, her face framed by a pillow of white satin. Myers says director Curtis Hanson had “severe doubts” about this costume and that she prepped two other outfits in case, including a red coat. She says the director worried, “‘Is it telling too much of the story too soon?’ Well, when you’ve got a face like that, there really isn’t too much of the story you can tell too soon,” says Myers. “It’s there.”

Ruth Myers

“I put her in the red coat, which everybody said ‘lovely,’ which it was,” she explains. “And then I put her in this and Curtis turned around and went, ‘Yeah.’ It was just that clear. But it was brave because it’s very, very striking.”

 

Lynn’s Yellow Sundress

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For what is a relatively dark story, the film ends on a more upbeat note enhanced by Lynn’s appearance at City Hall — fresh-faced, with a new haircut and in a cheery yellow sundress.

“That was about sunshine and about hope,” Myers says. “The dress was very deliberately yellow, so it was just happy. Because it’s just such a hopeful way for her to end.” Myers also notes that the dress was her only real opportunity to dress Basinger more closely to the 1950s era of the film, rather than the 1940s styles of Veronica Lake. “The other thing about that dress, which is really important, it’s period forward,” she explains. “Everything else is regressive. Everything else is ’40s in the ’50s. That dress is ’50s going towards ’60s.”

Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and D.A. Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin)

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For some of the higher-up characters in the film, particularly the police captain and the D.A., Myers wanted audiences to notice a distinct difference between their suits and the other officers. “They were tailor-made,” she explains. “We recreated those and tailored them specifically so that you would feel these were not people who did just go and buy their clothes at Sears or have them posted to them.”

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L.A. Confidential marked the halfway point in Myers’ career, who has since gone on to earn an Oscar nomination for Emma (1996) and work on projects as varied as The Painted Veil and The Golden Compass. Still, she says, especially in recent years, L.A. Confidential was the defining experience of her career. “It never entered my head at the time that this was going to be the film I would be identified with,” she says. But now, most interviews with directors with whom she might potentially collaborate include a mention of her work in this film. “I’m very comfortable about being identified with it — it’s wonderful.”

Strangely, though it is still so recognizable and revered 20 years later, the film did not earn Myers an Oscar nod. “I was surprised only in that I felt it was such an iconic film and such an homage to film,” she admits. But if there’s anything L.A. Confidential teaches us, it’s that there’s very rarely true justice in this world.

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