'Brooklyn,' the Movie, is a Parade of '50s Style — And it's All Vintage

For costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, outfitting a poor émigré from Ireland was about doing more with less.
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For costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, outfitting a poor émigré from Ireland was about doing more with less.
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) wearing her lone coat and saying goodbye to Ireland for the sunny shores of Brooklyn. Photo: Kerry Brown/2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) wearing her lone coat and saying goodbye to Ireland for the sunny shores of Brooklyn. Photo: Kerry Brown/2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

On Wednesday, Twentieth Century Fox's "Brooklyn," based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, hits US theaters — and the 1950s period costumes are bound to have as great an impact on viewers' imaginations as the sweetly charming coming-of-age story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) as she emigrates from her small hometown in Ireland to Brooklyn to build a new life. As a young transplant, Eilis battles severe homesickness, forges a new educational and career path, and finds love in new surroundings, while grappling with familial duties and romantic interests from her hometown and — thanks in part to her job at a Brooklyn department store — learning how to dress for her new adult life.

When costuming the film, Emmy-winning designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux — who also dressed Carey Mulligan in her 2009 breakout movie "An Education" — tried to think like a young woman building her wardrobe during the economically harsh post-World War II years. As Eilis's older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), helps pack for the big boat ride to America, it's shocking to see how few items of clothing — and just one lone pair of shoes — Eilis easily fits into her suitcase. 

"[She wouldn't bring] many clothes coming out of Ireland," Dicks-Mireaux tells Fashionista over the phone. "She would have a little suit and probably one skirt. She'd maybe have a raincoat [from when] she was a bit younger and held onto it." The costume designer was also authentic with Eilis's streamlined shoe collection. Seeing an old home movie of producer Finola Dwyer's parents, who emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand during that period, was the inspiration there. "A small detail struck me that you saved your high heels for the special occasions," she explains. "You didn’t wear them every day because they were very expensive to re-heel, so you wore flat shoes [most of the time]."

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the yellow dress inspired by Dicks-Mireaux's mother and a plaid-sporting Tony (Emory Cohen). Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the yellow dress inspired by Dicks-Mireaux's mother and a plaid-sporting Tony (Emory Cohen). Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

To outfit Eilis, the London-based costume designer looked to vintage photographs and screen sirens of the era, including Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Dicks-Mireaux also found inspiration a bit closer to home, too, looking to old photos of her French mother and English father who met just after the war in 1948. "My mother used to wear those little short socks when she came over and met my dad," she laughs. "When she got married, she had a yellow dress like the dress [that Eilis wears in the film]." 

To express Irish-born Eilis's awe for her bountiful American surroundings, Dicks-Mireaux gradually incorporated more color into the character's wardrobe. "There are a whole load of things she would never have seen in Ireland, like the amount of fruit," says Dicks-Mireaux, who has distinct memories of growing up in post-war Britain. "The color of the clothes, everything around her. It must have been just amazing." But just because Eilis is a New Yorker now, she's not going to end up with a Carrie Bradshaw-size closet. Viewers monitoring the movie's fashion might notice Eilis's minimal costume changes and frequently repeated looks. That's because Dicks-Mireaux never stopped thinking about the character as a budget-conscious, night-class-attending shopgirl, who would probably buy something "once a month or every three months."

"She would gradually get more and more clothes, without it seeming like she changed costume all the time," Dicks-Mireaux explains. "Or otherwise I don't think the audience would believe her at all." The designer would walk around set wielding an iPad to strategically work in pieces one at a time. "I didn't want the costumes to distract from [the storytelling] or get in the way and become a fashion piece," she says. Which is ironic considering that the very edited looks that Eilis wears throughout the movie really are scene-stealing — and pretty relevant to our millennial, vintage-obsessed sartorial leanings. "Sometimes Saoirse and I would laugh and she would say [that] she could go down the street now wearing some of it and actually she'd be okay!"

Beach fashion circa 1950, as modeled by Tony (Emory Cohen) and Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Beach fashion circa 1950, as modeled by Tony (Emory Cohen) and Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Nearly every piece of clothing in the film is original vintage from the era. The costume designer and her team sourced vintage sellers and costume rental houses near filming locations in Montreal and Ireland, plus Los Angeles to outfit a vibrant Coney Island beach day. "It was an international effort, " she says.

Jessica Paré as Miss Fortini looks on at her young employee. Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Jessica Paré as Miss Fortini looks on at her young employee. Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Eilis works a day job in a fancy Brooklyn department store on Fulton Street, managed by an icy Miss Fortini, played by "Mad Men" actress Jessica Paré — who was just born to wear retro siren looks. Dicks-Mireaux and the team decided that all the shop employees would wear black and white and searched out original vintage pieces in Montreal. "I did make a skirt," Dicks-Mireaux admits, "but Jessica's so tall."

Dicks-Mireaux and her team actually spent a fair amount of time letting down vintage skirts and dresses to meet the appropriate tea-length hemline circa early '50s. "Everyone just took up their dresses by '55 or '56," she says. "I was very adamant that we really got that long length that came out in 1950 or 51, after the Dior New Look 'Bar' suit came out in 1947 and filtered over to America."

The takeaway: What goes around comes around. Brooklyn is a hot migration destination once again (granted by tired, weary settlers from Manhattan), and tea-length skirts and slow fashion are back in 2015. And a good tearjerker film never goes out of style.  

Eilis in a blue dress, statement sunglasses and a recyclable shopping bag. (That's so 2015.) Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Eilis in a blue dress, statement sunglasses and a recyclable shopping bag. (That's so 2015.) Photo: Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation