Ambitious yet slightly apprehensive about the future, sweet Eilis Lacey (played by Saoirse Ronan) could be any American girl in 2015. But she’s not. As the central character in Brooklyn – which takes place in 1951, and arrives in theaters Nov. 4 – Eilis migrates solo from her native Ireland to New York’s most populated borough, where she eventually falls love with Tony (Emory Cohen), finds work at a posh department store and earns straight A’s at accounting school.
As Eilis transitions from a shy Irish girl to a confident American woman, she gradually trades her bulky Irish woolens for a wardrobe of U.S.-made sweaters, pretty dresses, and full, flirty skirts. “There are certain period productions that are very stylized, but we were going for a natural journey with Saoirse’s character where the clothes were there but they didn’t distract you as much as gave you an overall experience,” explains costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux. “Everything came from that era, and looks like real people wore them,” adds Ronan. Read on to learn more about her character’s retro looks.
Ronan, who was born in New York City to Irish parents but later raised in Ireland, found it harder than expected to take on her Brooklyn role. “It was the scariest thing I’d ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was the first time I had felt actual fear going into a project because there was nowhere to hide.” Vintage-sourced clothing – like this delicate navy knit – helped Ronan get into character, and celebrated the film’s narrative, too. Shares Ronan, “I naturally gravitate towards blues, but I think blues and greens reflected Eilis’s journey in relation to the sea and the land.”
Director John Crowley decided during pre-production that actress Grace Kelly would be a reference in creating Eilis’s “natural, graceful” style, shares Dicks-Mireaux. The costume designer also settled on another reference early in the pre-production process: her mother. “My mum had a dress like it,” recalls Dicks-Mireaux of this sweet butter-yellow number. “I found it from a shop in Montreal, and this dress reminded me of hers immediately.”
As Eilis embraces life in America, her outlook – and her wardrobe – become more colorful. “She starts to wear brighter clothes, things that are more vibrant and that need just a little more confidence to pull off,” says Ronan. Her favorite outfit? This flirty, floral skirt she wears on a date to the beach in Coney Island with boyfriend Tony (Cohen). In keeping with real-girl habits, Eilis wears the closet staple throughout the movie. Says Ronan, “I love that she wears it a few times.”
For scenes where Eilis works in a fashionable womenswear shop, Dicks-Mireaux created multiple ensembles inspired by the stylish uniforms that Macy’s department store employees wore during the mid-20th century. “My theory behind it was that the girls would have been given money to buy an outfit in the store,” divulges Dicks-Mireaux. “So as time goes on, Eilis would buy different outfits to wear as her uniform.” In keeping with Eilis’s evolving American outlook, this dress has some stateside-specific details, such as a front-facing zipper. “You’d never see that sort of dress in Britain at the time,” says the designer. “The idea of putting a zipper down the front of a dress rather than the back was very modern for the time.”
For a sentimental courthouse-set scene, Dicks-Mireaux outfitted Ronan in a sleek skirt suit. “I saw it at a costume house in Montreal, where I was struck by the color,” she shares. “I had no idea whether it would suit Saoirse, but I bought it. Luckily, it fit her perfectly and looked incredible on her. Sometimes you just have to be bold and go with your instincts, hoping that it works.” And if the look hadn’t flattered her leading lady, the London Boulevard designer would have found a use for the ensemble anyway. Says Dicks-Mireaux, “If it hadn’t worked on Saoirse, I would have put it on someone in the background!”
Every single item of clothing seen in the film – including all of the dresses worn by Eilis and the girls in her boarding house – was purchased from vintage costume houses in London and Montreal. “I hadn’t done this time period before, and it was a huge pleasure to look through stock that was just so beautifully made,” says Dicks-Mireaux. Though exquisite, each piece was incredibly fragile. “I definitely ripped some of the tights, which I felt really bad about because they were expensive,” Ronan says. “Odile didn’t know about it and I think we were able to hide it, but at the time I thought the world was going to end because they were really, really expensive.”
“It was an actual swimsuit from the times,” shares Ronan of the glamorous retro suit her character purchases for a special beach outing. Though stylish, the cotton bathing costume – made before the days of modern Spandex – didn’t hold up once wet. “It’s nice, but once you get into the water, they completely stretch out,” says Ronan of the suit, laughing. “Everything went south!”
Ronan fell in love with the feminine fashion her character wears throughout the period-set flick. “I think Brooklyn was the first film that I got to dress like a girl,” jokes Ronan, who played an assassin in 2011’s Hanna and a grungy girl-next-door in 2014’s Lost River. “I think up to this point, people weren’t even sure I was a female because half the time I was in animal fur, rags, or an orange jumpsuit.” In fact, Ronan has no problem taking on another period role in the near future – on the condition that corsets aren’t required. “I don’t want anything where your lungs are shriveled at the end of the day,” she says. “But in all seriousness, if you’re the type of person that really wants to change things in every role, which is how I like to work and what I’m drawn to, it’s a great thing to experiment with different fashion, looks and clothes and embrace a character’s physicality.”