Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): How Big Little Lies brought Audrey Hepburn and Elvis to life
The season 1 finale of HBO’s Big Little Lies had a lot going on — character-wise, drama-wise, and, of course, costume-wise. Monterey’s residents dressed in their finest Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley-inspired outfits for the elementary school’s trivia night fundraiser, and here, costume designer Alix Friedberg explains how she and her team put together these gorgeous, elaborate looks for the jaw-dropping episode.
It sounds like a costume designer’s fantasy: Take some of the most renowned and striking actresses in Hollywood and dress them up in Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic looks. And, for good measure, put the guys in Elvis’ best threads.
This was the task facing Alix Friedberg when she took on designing the wardrobe for Big Little Lies, the HBO series based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty. The book (and the Emmy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated television series) has its harrowing climax at the elementary school trivia night, where all the guests must dress up as an iteration of either Audrey Hepburn or Elvis Presley.
Friedberg was already a fan of Moriarty’s novel and aware of the importance of the costume party to the overall narrative when she took the job. “It’s sort of a costume designer’s dream to be able to interpret all of those iconic costumes that I drooled over as a kid and as a fashion student,” she says. “I was super excited about it, and it was also quite daunting — the short time frame that we had and the number of different looks that we had to come up with, the amount of background, and it being a night exterior.”
Here, she breaks down the decisions behind the characters’ looks.
From the first moments of the show, viewers were teased with a tantalizing glimpse of the costumes to come, which ultimately did not appear until the seventh and final episode. But Friedberg says she was not aware the costumes would become such a big part of the credit sequence: “[Jean-Marc Vallée] is incredibly improvisational,” she explains. “A lot of the things you see, he makes up the night before or the day of. Those Audrey-Elvis costumes, that little dance routine, it was just completely [improvised], and it wasn’t on the call sheet. It was just something he wanted to do and wasn’t quite sure where it would end up.”
Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) as Holly Golightly
For the most elegant of the Big Little Lies women, there was only one choice: Audrey in Givenchy, pearls, and a tiara as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For Celeste, “Everything is so classic and timeless and beautiful,” Friedberg explains. Selecting Hepburn’s most classic look makes perfect sense for Celeste’s character, while also providing a natural platform for her to display her expensive taste in clothing and the jewels Perry showers her with.
For Celeste’s black dress, inspired by a Givenchy original in the film, Friedberg turned to Parisian atelier Anna Maier to custom-make a gown. The necklace was handmade in-house and the gloves were custom-ordered from England. “Gloves are something you have to get in Europe, unless you’re custom-making them,” she explains. On dressing Kidman for this segment (and more generally), Friedberg says, “My job was incredibly easy because of the way she looks. She’s incredible.”
Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) as Holly Golightly
In Moriarty’s novel, Madeline, who always finds herself the swirling center of drama, attends the party in an “inappropriate” take on Holly Golightly. Friedberg decided to push that even further. “We thought, in the group of five, it would be nice to have her stick out a little more, celebrating Reese’s fantastic legs, going with something a little bit inappropriate, but a different Breakfast at Tiffany’s look,” she explains.
They purchased the sleep mask on Etsy and enhanced it with trim and eyelashes, while the shirt was a reworked Céline piece. The tassel earrings (a take on Hepburn’s earplugs in the film) were custom-made. “It was really bold of [Reese] to do it,” Friedberg says. “It was freezing, and she was freezing. She knew going in this was something she’d have to commit to for two weeks of straight nights and I applaud her for doing it.”
Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) as Holly Golightly
By far the most reserved of the leading women, Jane has a big coming-out moment the night of the fundraiser when she dresses in Hepburn’s signature little black dress. Friedberg describes it as a “Pretty Woman moment” for the character. “It’s the first time we see Jane’s physical shape,” she says. “She’s always kind of hiding that through the whole show, and it’s a moment where you can see her femininity. We chose something she could have thrifted so it was financially attainable for her character — a very simple, but body-hugging silhouette.”
Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) as Eliza Doolittle
Audrey Hepburn films are rife with makeover moments, and one of the most memorable is when My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle appears decked out in jewels and finery to attend her first ball. Boho Bonnie earns a similar glam moment with her fundraiser look and her incredible musical performance, but this wasn’t always the plan. “Originally, I’d talked to Jean-Marc and we wanted her to have that bohemian look that Audrey did in Funny Face — the black boatneck with the capri pants,” Friedberg reveals. “When we scouted that location, looking at the stage and seeing this moment where she would be singing onstage would be so important, it felt like we needed to have more color. And Zoë herself was fascinated by that particular dress in My Fair Lady, that moment. We interpreted that out of a vintage sari that we found, which felt very Bonnie — a found, vintage, boho piece that she had then taken into a costume place.” They custom-made her jewels in-house.
Renata Klein (Laura Dern) as Eliza Doolittle
The most extravagant of all the looks, perfectionist Renata pulls out all the stops to bring the iconic My Fair Lady ascot dress to life — even down to a brunette wig. “Renata never did anything partially,” Friedberg notes. “It was always every detail was thought out and custom-made. If she walked into a party, she would trump every single person in the room. It was important for her to have thought of custom-making everything down to the wig and the gloves and parasol. There were no details that she didn’t think of and have done.”
Friedberg calls the look her “favorite piece in the show.” She was inspired to put Dern in this look, a shift from the novel, because of her interpretation of Renata as a more fashion-forward power player. “She is just a constant inspiration — not only her physique but her interpretation of Renata being so over the top and more of a peacock as opposed to someone in just power suits,” explains Friedberg.
The dress was another custom piece by Anna Maier. “We were more interested in making it feel like a fashion moment and less about interpreting that costume exactly,” explains Friedberg. “Taking the essence of the black and white ribbon on a white dress and the big hat — that’s the three elements that you need to know that that’s what that is. We had a lot of fun doing the Renata Chanel version and pleating our own cuffs and having it fit a certain way and having the ascot ribbon be in a different location.” They tried out several different hats, ranging from top hats to smaller fascinators to more modern takes, but Friedberg says, “It just became apparent that we needed to have this hat, to not only sell what it was, but also to have it be a prop for her to use at the end when things go crazy.”
Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) as leather Elvis
Perry went with a skin-tight take on the King. “That was something our director Jean-Marc really wanted,” says Friedberg. “From the very beginning, he wanted him to be that Elvis, that version. There was no discussion, that was it. That was what he had in his head. He had this affection for that version of Elvis — that slickness and that rock ‘n’ roll look every man wishes they could pull off, but very few men could. But certainly Alexander Skarsgård could with confidence — and Elvis, of course.”
Ed Mackenzie (Adam Scott) as Blue Hawaii Elvis
Although we see Ed try out a traditional white Elvis jumpsuit and thick mutton chops earlier in the season, he ultimately opts for this more subtle look in contrast to his wife Madeline’s bold take on Holly Golightly. “It became more of who he was,” says Friedberg. “This white jumpsuit was something he was trying really hard to be. He was trying to impress Madeline. He was trying to really go for it. But his true-blue Elvis came with the a capella and the ukulele and the simpler version of Elvis.”
Nathan Carlson (James Tupper) as Jailhouse Rock Elvis
“Nathan is always trying to be cooler than he actually is, so that came from that look,” Friedberg says of this pick for Madeline’s ex-husband. “That’s such a cool, iconic look and perfect for him. I don’t think he ever wants to feel uncool — he would feel too self-conscious in a jumpsuit, whereas Jailhouse Rock was just the right amount of leather and jean.”
Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling) as gold lamé Elvis
Friedberg has one word to describe this look and Gordon’s vibe: “sleazebag.” For Renata’s slightly slimy husband, the costumers wanted to showcase his true colors in his costume choice. “It was perfect for him really; it innately fit his personality,” says Friedberg. “It almost looked like something he would wear in real life. He just had that one-too-many-items feeling for me. It was a little too self-conscious and a little sleaze in there. There’s just a little bit about him that was a bit Euro.”
Big Little Lies