'Spotlight,' a Film About Journalism, Gets Unexpected Attention for its Frumpy Costumes

We spoke to costume designer Wendy Chuck about those pleated pants and thrift store button-downs.
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We spoke to costume designer Wendy Chuck about those pleated pants and thrift store button-downs.
'Spotlight' even manages to make conference calls exciting. Screengrab: Open Road Films

'Spotlight' even manages to make conference calls exciting. Screengrab: Open Road Films

Critics are falling all over themselves praising "Spotlight," a film about the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into sexual abuse in the city's Catholic archdiocese. The film, in theaters now, stars Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Brian d'Arcy James as a team of reporters and lawyers working to uncover the scandal and bring justice to the victims. On Thursday, "Spotlight" picked up three Golden Globe nominations, including one for "Best Motion Picture - Drama."

The last thing you'd expect from a movie about the thrill of compiling Excel spreadsheets is any kind of buzz about the costumes. But as soon as "Spotlight" started filming in 2014, observers were taken with the reporters' wonderfully realistic '90s styles: standard-issue khakis and button-downs galore. 

In real life, Rachel McAdams looks like this. Screengrab: Open Road Films

In real life, Rachel McAdams looks like this. Screengrab: Open Road Films

"We shot our first week at the Boston Globe itself, in the physical building, and people said, 'Oh yeah, that's just what Sacha [Pfeiffer, played by McAdams] used to wear,'" says the film's costume designer, Wendy Chuck, who also designed the costumes for "Twilight" and "The Descendants."

Since those first images surfaced, viewers have shown appreciation for the ill-fitting casual-wear, mixed with plenty of jabs about the trends of the early aughts that some say is still typical of journalists' outfits today. And yet there was some resistance among the cast to the unflattering looks, Chuck says.

"You have to remember this cast is full of really great-looking, handsome men and one beautiful woman who really embraced the look," says Chuck. "Men’s fashion — it's so skinny right now, and well-fitted, and late '90s fashion wasn't. They had to shift their minds from what they came in wearing and what they were wearing everyday, into what was really the character." One imagines John Slattery grew accustomed to sharp suits all those years on "Mad Men." But check out his pleated khakis in the image below. 

The dream team assembles. Photo: Open Road Films

The dream team assembles. Photo: Open Road Films

Yes, the pants are probably the most striking part of the movie's costumes. Pfeiffer referred to the pair worn by McAdams in the film as "infamous" after the actress sent a photo to her real-life counterpart. Chuck says she found the '90s Gap chinos that served as a model for that pair at a thrift store. "I made a couple of copies of that particular one and then fitted [McAdams] accordingly," says Chuck. "Keep in mind that you can't just show vintage clothes on an actor and have them absolutely right or actually feel right, so I still filtered through a contemporary look and just kind of fit it better around her hips and kept it a bit baggy around her rear. A lot of that pleated stuff from the '90s is just really big in the seat of the pants, so I found myself modifying that a lot." 

Much of McAdams's wardrobe came from thrift stores, including a black suit and many of her collared shirts. "I looked for a lot of Jones New York stuff," says Chuck. "That was really in the right zone, even to buy it contemporary now was working on her." 

Chuck researched the main characters' looks by speaking to most of them directly and consulting personal photos. "I exchanged a lot of emails and they were really great about personally commenting on their colleagues' style," says Chuck. "They let me know where they shop or where they didn't shop or if their wives shopped for them, and I was able to email or call them... I think sometimes the reality of clothes is very different to how people perceive them from a contemporary point of view, but I felt like I got it right because I had references and I had evidence that this was what people were wearing at the time and in those conditions." 

Props to the prop coordinator for all the spectacular spectacles in this film, including the ones hanging around d'Arcy James's neck here. Screengrab: Open Road Films

Props to the prop coordinator for all the spectacular spectacles in this film, including the ones hanging around d'Arcy James's neck here. Screengrab: Open Road Films

For the men's costumes, Chuck also scoured thrift stores for every Brooks Brothers shirt she could find as well as quirky ties for d'Arcy James's character, who she says was the most fun to dress. "He's kind of the everyman, he could be any reporter anywhere of that era, with the mustache and his hair and his pants, and his solid-colored shirts in maroon and green." Chuck did buy some contemporary Brooks Brothers shirts too ("never the slim cut"), and broke them in with an enzyme wash. "Brooks Brothers shirts are so great, they don't break down very easily and they tended to look new no matter how much I washed them down." 

And while Chuck calls the Boston reporter look "definitely preppy" — defined by khaki pants, a blue button-down with optional navy blazer — Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes had a slightly different look thanks to the real-life reporter's specific memories about his style at the time. "He said, 'I wore my Doc Marten boots and I had jeans,' and then I could see that he had a bunch of polo shirts," says Chuck. His key piece, however, was an oversized leather jacket, selected from a pool of 12 sourced from thrift stores and rental houses. "There's a lot of close-up shots or mid-close-up shots, and so I knew that jacket was going to appear a lot," she says.

The Hulk awakens. Screengrab: Open Road Films

The Hulk awakens. Screengrab: Open Road Films

So how does the "Spotlight" team feel about their now infamously schlumpy sense of style on the big screen? "They have embraced it, they've all said, 'Oh you've got it, you got it right.'" Chuck says the costumes were successful in part because she avoided the fashion-forward clichés people associate with the late '90s. "I think there's a tendency with period movies to just draw from fashion too much and I found myself pulling back a lot, pulling back, keeping it simple, keeping it kind of bland and boring." Clearly, that was the right move.

The set designers also used a great deal of restraint in this film. Photo: SpotlightTheFilm.com

The set designers also used a great deal of restraint in this film. Photo: SpotlightTheFilm.com