How I, Tonya's costume designer stitched sympathy for an imperfect outcast
Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, I, Tonya (now playing) costume designer Jennifer Johnson reminisces about trying to stitch together a well-documented life through the rollicking biopic’s clothing — and how she knew she stuck a perfect landing after getting the best review of her career (hint: it was from Tonya Harding herself).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your goal in terms of what you wanted these costumes to communicate?
JENNIFER JOHNSON: [I was] instantly contaminated with tabloid ideas of who Tonya Harding was…. I was old enough to be a part of the collective American judgment panel on her…. so my goal when I started the project was really to erase any thoughts that I had about her and start fresh…. With all of my work, I want to love my characters, even if they’re flawed, and that reflects in how I approach the costumes. I wanted the costumes to not be ironic or funny in any way, so that was the hardest part. [We had] to show a real person: that was my goal, to have a sympathetic approach.
How does one achieve that sense of understanding through clothing?
I divided her life and her closet into different chapters. First, you see her as a kid, when LaVona dressed her. She made her skate costumes for her, braided her hair, and put beautiful ribbons in her hair. Even though she was very abusive, she tried to be a mother and wanted to give the outward appearance that they had it together, even though they were really poor. Her mother dictates Tonya’s skating life until she meets Diane [Rawlinson], this society skate coach who wears Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley. When Tonya’s a teenager, Diane grooms her and shops for her. It’s all well documented in a film by Tonya’s teenage friend [watch a portion of the film below]. She actually turned in for her Yale film thesis! You can find it online. She filmed these great shopping trips where Tonya’s with Diane at the mall and trying on fur coats and dresses, and getting really annoyed by it. You can see that Tonya’s starting to become her own person.
When Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly, that’s the third chapter of her closet. She fires Diane, hires a new coach, and experiments with her costumes by making them herself…. as the abuse escalates between her and Jeff, they actually start dressing alike. There’s this interesting Stockholm Syndrome going on. There are photos of them lovingly holding on to each other, and they’re wearing almost the same sweater or turtleneck. She lost her identity [with him], at least from an outsider’s perspective, and her color palette becomes very somber and serious.
Also, when she got sponsorships after landing the triple in ‘91, she made money and asserted herself again as she broke away from Jeff. She had a Louis Vuitton bag, Chanel earrings… She was neat, detailed, and clean, in a way. She had a wild personality and her skate costumes were always wild, but [these small details] made me realize she was quite proud. She had a little bit of money, so she bought a nice leather jacket, earrings, and a purse, and she was probably proud of that.
Seeing her in the news as a kid, I remember thinking how much she didn’t look like other famous women I’d seen at that time, in terms of how she presented herself. Why do you think that was?
I grappled with that, also. She was under so much stress from her husband and mother, and the skate community was very abusive toward her. I watched endless footage of her performances on YouTube, and the commentators’ voiceovers are horrible. They’re so judgmental, judging her costume, her music, her style — it’s heartbreaking, because to this day she’s one of the best skaters of all time. Very few have landed a triple, because it takes an incredible amount of physical power. In a sport that’s incredibly feminine and much like ballet, you’re expected to be hyper feminine, but at the same time have the same physical prowess as a man. I wonder if she was withdrawn [because of that], almost like she disappeared during that time when she does have money [because of the criticism].
What was it like working with the competition outfits? Did you feel added pressure to get those completely accurate?
Yes, and it was stressful! The archival photography was disjointed in quality. Sometimes, we’d literally watch a YouTube clip of her in motion…. plus, her earlier costumes are not as well documented as they were, say, in the Olympics where there’s great photography. It was an interesting process…. and I wanted to pay homage to Tonya’s commitment, because a lot of these costumes she made. She did a nice job in the construction and care of the costumes regardless if you like the style or not. It’s a lot of Swarovski crystals and a lot of spandex. [Laughs] The most interesting costume was the ‘91 Nationals outfit — that’s that famous turquoise spandex one, and she made that herself. It was important that it fit badly, because what Tonya had available to her was jumbo spandex that stretched one way, so the arms are kind of loose, baggy, and wrinkled. There’s something sweet about that.
Did Tonya directly have any input in your designs?
I wanted to meet her so badly, but I never got the chance [until the premiere], when she came out as a surprise as the credits rolled. She went to the after party and I walked up to her and shook her hand. I told her I was the costume designer and she threw her arms around me. We hugged for so long, and she said, “I couldn’t understand how you got ahold of my costumes!” That’s the best review I could’ve gotten, right from Tonya.
What about LaVona? How did you approach her?
Initially I only had a few photographs and that video of her talking to the camera with the bird on her shoulder. She seemed so butch and tough, and I thought it was interesting that she wore a fur coat. There’s also a great family portrait of her with Tonya and Tonya’s father. It’s a proper Sears portrait of the family, and Tonya has French braids and bows in her hair, and LaVona looks really pretty. She had her hair done in rollers, and she has on nice earrings and a blouse. Tonya’s dad is in a nice suit.
I also noticed that, when you occasionally see LaVona on the sidelines as Tonya is training for the ‘94 Olympics, she’s lapping it up a bit. She has her hair done and nice earrings on, so I thought it was interesting to illustrate…. that she comes from the ‘40s and ‘50s, a time when people were so proud of how they [were able] to display themselves to the world [and] she tried to hold on to that feeling of elegance. That’s why the fur coat [in the video interview] fascinated me. She’s thinking, ‘Okay, I’m doing an interview, and this is the best thing that I own.’ We also meet LaVona in the early ’70s, but I wanted her wardrobe to be from the ‘60s, sort of out of fashion for the time to show that at one point she was probably a little more elegant and put together.
And the bird was on her shoulder during that video interview, right? Did the actual bird on the set pose any problems for wardrobe?
His name is Little Man, and he was so well trained! He was very polite, but Allison [Janney] did have a glass of whiskey [in the scene], and the bird kept trying to dunk his head in and drink it. It was really funny. The bird is also trying to kiss Allison and nibble at her ear, which we kept in the film…. Allison loved Little Man so much. He was just a good actor who wanted to get drunk!