The Royal Tenenbaums costume designer looks back on dressing 'a family in decline'
It's Wes Anderson week at EW! Ahead of the Oct. 22 release of The French Dispatch, we're celebrating the auteur's singular filmography with a series of throwbacks celebrating his most beloved titles. Here, we look at the unforgettable costumes of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Every Halloween, they appear: A sweatband here. A blonde bob and smeary smoky eye there. And then, upon the arrival of an organized group of early-aughts cinephiles, you see the whole tableau: Tracksuit. Fur coat. Pinstripes. Polo shirt.
After 20 years, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums hasn't weakened its grip on our collective imagination. That's in part due to the remarkable costumes by Karen Patch, who, on her third collaboration with Anderson, created the unforgettable, hyper-specific wardrobe of the Tenenbaums, whom she dressed as "a family in decline."
"They were a family defined by their appearance," Patch explains to EW. "They wore their identities." Each character has a clear uniform (in a repeated sight gag, we see characters' closets filled with identical pieces) that clearly outlines who they are: Regretful patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) in his pinstriped suit and tie; businessman son Chas (Ben Stiller) and his young sons in matching red Adidas tracksuits; son Richie (Luke Wilson), a former tennis prodigy, in a FILA polo shirt and sweatband; and (adopted) playwright daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a striped Lacoste dress and fur coat.
In creating those character-defining looks, Patch had drawings by Anderson's brother Eric, which were created in pre-production and appear as part of a book-within-the-film, as a loose guide. She and Anderson worked closely together, going over what she made every day, because "we didn't really have time or money to make mistakes," she says, and Anderson is "very specific." Patch had also worked with the director on his first two features, 1996's Bottle Rocket and 1998's Rushmore, which had both been even smaller affairs. "We were making things on the truck as we went, on the day sometimes," she recalls of those films. "And he kept saying, 'On the next one, I want you to build everything. Nothing will be bought in a store.'"
Having developed a creative understanding with Anderson, by the time they got to Royal Tenenbaums, Patch understood that he wanted the characters populating his carefully stylized world to wear "something original, not something that anyone could have. So everything had to be made from scratch." They pulled that off on their third collaboration — despite the extensive use of familiar labels. Patch and her team built all of the main cast's wardrobes, even the Lacoste, FILA, and Adidas-branded pieces. "I was in touch with those companies, because I had to let them know what I was doing, to get approval. But we made up our version of that," she explains. For Margot's closet full of polo dresses, Lacoste provided a selection of striped swatches in various colorways, from which Patch and Anderson chose the fabrics they wanted to order.
Stripes appear prominently on most of the main characters' costumes — Royal and his three children, at least — but Patch says that was just a coincidence, typical of those brands at the time and of sportswear in general. Truly, the strongest through-line connecting the dysfunctional family's wardrobe is a sort of arrested development: "They were still wearing the costume of their youth," Patch says. "Or at least their favorite, their best time. The family of geniuses… stuck in the same place."
For Chas, Richie, and Margot, that was extremely literal. Grown-up Richie and Margot both wear exactly the same clothes they had in their childhood; for Chas, it was a reinterpretation following the tragic death of his wife — he goes from wearing a child's version of his father's formalwear to wearing a tracksuit (though with a certain formality that he lends it himself) that matches his own sons' clothing. "That was because he was so sort of neurotic, keeping his family out of danger and keeping them together," Patch says of the uniform. "He felt like red was a good color to be able to keep an eye on them all the time, and that they could move quickly in those uniforms."
The most enduring look of to come out of this crumbling, once-great household is that of Paltrow as Margot, the failed playwright with a broken marriage and missing finger. It was Anderson's idea to put her in a fur coat: "I kind of laughed, and I was like, 'As a child too?'" Patch recalls. "He said, 'Yes.'" The notion of a young girl in a huge fur coat reminded Patch of the 1964 film The World of Henry Orient, which she used as a reference for the concept (but not the specific design) of the uniform for child Margot (Irina Gorovaia); for Paltrow's adult Margot, "Fendi was the company that made the coat for me with sketches and notes from both me and Wes."
Even before the film was done, the costume spoke to Paltrow, too. "I remember the first fitting I had with Gwyneth, and her saying, 'Oh! I know who I am!'" Patch recalls. "It's one thing reading it from the page, and it's another thing putting on those loafers. That's what she said, 'When I put those loafers on, that Lacoste dress, I knew who I was.'"
Audiences knew, too, which is part of why Patch believes the film's wardrobe continues to resonate. "One of the reasons I think so many people identified with these characters and the clothing is just because the clothes were familiar," she says. "They've seen these clothes before. They've seen Lacoste, they've seen FILA — but these were strangely off. So they're familiar, but strangely off."
It's hard for Patch to choose a favorite look from the film — "there were so many!" — but those perennial Halloween favorites are undeniable. "The ones that stick in my mind are always Margot and Richie. I mean, they've become iconic," she says. And those two decades ago, did she guess, could she have ever known, that these weirdly wonderful personal uniforms would come pop culture landmarks?
"You know what, I did know," she says. "I knew it because it was different than anything else I'd ever done. We were paying so much attention to detail. I certainly knew that I was paying more attention, putting more effort into every costume than I'd ever done, timewise. I mean, I was laughing all the time. I make it sound like it was grueling, but it was really a huge amount of fun."
"There always seems to be a resurgence of interest in The Royal Tenenbaums — and not just The Royal Tenenbaums, but Wes' works, and I think it's just because it's so intricate," Patch reflects (for a tiny extra taste of that intricacy, note the mirroring of the Margot and Richie split photos, above). "He's such a unique filmmaker. He has his own style, and it's original."