How the 'Red Sparrow' Costume Designer Transformed Jennifer Lawrence Into a Ballerina-Turned-Super-Spy

"There's nothing about Dominika that's regular," says Trish Summerville of the cunning lead character.
By Fawnia Soo Hoo ,

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, at right). Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Warning: Mild spoilers for "Red Sparrow" below.

Jennifer Lawrence's upcoming film was a bit of a reunion for the actress: Opening in theaters on Friday, March 2, "Red Sparrow" reunites her with "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" director Francis Lawrence and costume designer Trish Summerville. In the Russian spy thriller, the superstar lead has clearly graduated from YA straight into "rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity," which Lawrence has been discussing much of late. But, hey, I'm here to talk about the very excellent costumes, which artfully help tell the arc of prima-ballerina-turned-double agent Dominika Egorova, played by Lawrence, complete with a Russian accent.

To set the stage (pun unintended) with a six-minute performance of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," Lawrence, who trained with a former New York City Ballet dancer for three and a half months, wears a regal, gold-embroidered red ballet costume. To land on the strikingly specific hue, as described in the "Red Sparrow" novel by Jason Matthews and the script, Summerville heavily researched the actual ballet going back nearly a century. "So we went with a really vibrant blue-red for it," she says. The ornate gilded detail proved to be quite an endeavor, and began with an illustrator. The design was then programmed into an embroidery machine to create and scale the pattern to fit Lawrence's body. 

Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The ballet costume foreshadows Dominkia's involuntary entry into the spy game after she suffers a career-ending injury. With a sick mother to care for, she's coerced by her Putin-doppelgänger Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to target a Russian bigwig, whom she met before her final performance. For their fateful meeting, Dominika wears a similarly hued dress with lace detail, sheer sleeves and paillette embellishments. "[We wanted] her to stand out and be reminiscent of what she looked like at the Bolshoi," explains Summerville. "So as soon as she walks in, she catches his eye." The color also commands the audience's eyes, as well, to Dominika, as she waits at the posh hotel bar probably populated by "a lot of women looking for rich Russian husbands." 

"The dress was tasteful enough, so nothing about it appeared 'whore-ish,'" adds Summerville. "She just looked beautiful and stunning in the dress."

Speaking of, the color palette drastically changes when Dominika, thanks again to creepy Uncle Vanya, is forced to enroll in "Sparrow School" or what she bluntly refers to as "whore school." There, recruits, willing or not, train in spy-craft specializing seduction of the enemy. To create the boxy-shaped and drab gray Sparrow looks, Summerville looked to prison uniforms and clothing from the '40s to '60s with a "cold, communist and totalitarian feel to it." While the males wear pants and females wear below-the-knee skirts, all the Sparrows sport the same "very sad work shoes" and unisex shirts and jackets. "None of them are special. They all look the same. They all dress the same."

Sparrow School dance. Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Still, Summerville does reveal small, but important, character clues through subtle details in the costumes. For instance, during what appears, at first, to be a celebration, the female recruits wear more stylized (and more sexualized) versions of the uniforms. The gray wrap dresses represent a sense of false hope or reward, but then the occasion turns out to be a test of their newly-learned skill set. 

"[Dominika] is the one most defiant one," explains Summerville, who has also costume designed for kick-ass female leads in the English-language "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and the "Westworld" pilot. "So maybe her dress is cut a little too small and has this bra that's a little bit showy."

Also, keep an eye out, because Summerville — whether for her "own satisfaction" or for perceptive culture nerds (or both) — likes to sneak costume "tidbits" into her work. For a frigid outdoor Sparrow running exercise, she paid homage to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." "The beanies and the gloves," she says, link back to the mental hospital-set Jack Nicholson classic. "None of them are special as far as the government is concerned. 'We're going to mold you into who we want you to be and if you don't conform, you're quite exchangeable. We'll just replace you with another,'" is the vibe she was going for.

Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

After an expedited graduation from Sparrow School, Dominika heads abroad to target American CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), while wearing a very '70s-influenced covert spy wardrobe. "Everything she wore and everything we built was contemporary, but it did give a little nod to a timeless, sexy feel," Summerville explains, about Dominika's classic coats and jackets, A-line miniskirts with tights and knee-high boots and throwback hats. She also infused another period "nod," referencing '70s heiress and accused domestic terrorist Patty Hearst (who's back in the news again) by dressing Dominika in a sleek black turtleneck, silk Burberry trench coat and beret.

Dominika's wardrobe of neutral hues and streamlined silhouettes allow her to blend in when needed and stand out just enough to "attract her bait" — i.e., Nash, who, let's be honest, isn't that difficult to lure, especially at the pool where he likes to do his daily laps. So instead of, say, a modest one-piece Speedo for optimal sidestrokes, Dominika wears ultra-sexy, very strappy and strategically-cut-out maillots from Australian label Ephemera. "That wouldn't be a swimsuit you would do laps in a pool in, but she's not necessarily there to do laps in a pool," says Summerville, who does note that the suits are perfectly functional for a calorie-burning swim. 

Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

"Everything she does is on a calculated level," she adds. "There's nothing about Dominika that's regular."


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To close out the movie, Dominika returns to the ballet house for a dramatic shot of her descending red carpeted stairs for a perfect symbolic moment of "closure," wearing one last memorable look: a fluid black gown. Summerville says that the moment on the stairs wasn't scripted, but devised on the fly after the production discovered the stunning backdrop on site. 

Photo: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

"I just wanted it to be a piece that definitely showed a lot of her skin, so that it shows she is vulnerable and open," she explains, about the bias-cut velvet gown with French lace from Solstiss embellishing the waist and neckline. "We wanted her to be a bit mature and show that she is this woman of her own making."

Follow Trish Summerville on Instagram @mztsummerville. 'Red Sparrow' opens in theaters on Friday, March 2.

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