"Loving," which opened to limited audiences on Friday, tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the United States. It's a quiet, but powerful film — often communicating the pain, love, struggle, strength and courage of the real-life couple through expression and hushed interaction between the leads Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who's received considerable Oscar buzz since the movie debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Despite being the catalysts for such a historical ruling, Richard and Mildred weren't activists. They just wanted the basic right to be married and raise their children in their hometown surrounded by family and loved ones. But after being arrested in Virginia, the couple was banished from the state for 25 years by a local judge in exchange for suspended one-year jail sentences. While living in Washington, D.C., Mildred, increasingly unhappy with city life and missing her family, wrote to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to plead her case. RFK then passed her letter to the ACLU, which argued the Lovings' case from the local courts all the way to the historical Supreme Court ruling.
In the film depiction of the couple's story, Mildred's wardrobe also subtly helped convey her journey, starting with free-flowing, nipped-waist, '50s printed dresses in her carefree moments in the country, which transitioned into soft, but structured sweater and pencil skirt sets in the harsher, more isolated years in Washington, D.C. as the Lovings launched their legal battle to return home.
"We used wardrobe in those moments to give Mildred strength or to show her excitement," explained costume designer Erin Benach, who's also responsible for the-high fashion wardrobe in this summer's "Neon Demon," starring Elle Fanning. "The scene when [Mildred and Joel] first meet the [civil rights] lawyers, I think she knew that she was starting to become a representative and voice for others and we were careful to show that she cared how she was portraying herself."
The memorable costume scene involved the smart cap-sleeve navy sweater with a bow-tie detail and a plaid pencil skirt Mildred wore to the Loving's first meeting with the ACLU lawyer — while Richard sticks to his plaid shirt uniform. "The two of them [are] stepping out into an environment that is not a really common one and she puts herself together and puts her best on," Benach says. "[Mildred is wearing her] skirt and her little sweater and he is way more skeptical about the whole situation so he's coming straight with his work clothes."
She also used costume to portray the emotions fueled by the Loving's separation from their home and families during Mildred's three pregnancies. "The bellies also reflect how Mildred felt," Benach explained in the production notes. "For example, she is overwhelmed when she's pregnant and walking the supermarket aisles in her first days in D.C. So that outfit was made to feel like she's exploding out of it and is weighted down."
Benach enjoyed the task of recreating or interpreting looks from historical photographs of the couple — like the above black-and-white checkered dress in a drag racing scene — and developing original costumes inspired by the real life couple. She both custom-designed pieces and sourced vintage. "It is the late 1950s, which is awesome because we were able to actually get pieces that still existed," she said. "I've done movies set in the teens or '20s and the clothing is genuinely not there or falling apart because it's 100 years old — or we didn't have access to it — but we did have access to clothing from this time period. So we just tried a lot of things and filled in the blanks."
Benach did, however custom-create most of Edgerton's costumes. "Our first challenge was to figure out a way to make clothing fit Joel much the way that it fit Richard," she said. As revealed in old photographs, the bricklayer's very specific slouchy posture — with his back rounded and one hip forward — was integral to Edgerton's strong, but sometimes silent portrayal of the Loving patriarch. Plus, the menswear pant inseam was considerably higher back in the '50s.
"We tried different measurements and, after that first fitting, we knew which ones worked and which ones definitely did not," Benach also explained in the production notes. "After that, we had an almost scientific formula worked out: Joel would do the stance in the fitting and he and I would decide together if the pants looked and felt right before running it by [director] Jeff [Nichols]."
Benach also found in her research that it was common at the time for bricklayers to wear gray-hued clothing to obscure and blend in with cement mix stains. "It was just something they did to maintain a certain amount of put-togetherness," she said. From there, she created Richard's color palette. "We used a lot of taupe-y, brown and lighter colored pants and jean material. And then chambray on the top and different kinds of plaids that were muted in tones that wouldn't be too contrasting to the cement color of the brick."
As the Loving v. Virginia case made its way to the Supreme Court, the civiil rights lawyers simultaneously launched a strategic PR push. Life magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) visited the Loving farm to shoot candid and intimate family moments for a photo essay titled, "The Crime of Being Married." Villet also captures Richard and Mildred sharing a relaxed and joyous post-dinner moment laughing at a comedy playing on TV — making for a crucial scene for Benach to replicate.
"I've never had to do anything quite like that, where we're actually trying to very specifically copy a picture," Benach said. "That had its own fun challenge because I would assess in the picture. 'OK is this a sweater? Is this made out of wool? Is this made out of cotton?' I would do my inspector job."
"In my mind, [the sweater has] always been oatmeal-colored even though it's a black and white photograph," she continued with a laugh. "We really mimic the neckline and then it was about finding that cozy fit on her that wasn't too form fitting."
The costumes, like the movie itself, are quiet and powerful — elements to help impart an important historical narrative that remains relevant today when marriage equality is still a huge issue in this country. (In 2007, the intensely private Mildred Loving gave a moving statement endorsing gay marriage. "I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about," she wrote.)
"I'm always just trying to just create costumes that support the story and to not distract the viewers and not take the viewer out of the moment," said Benach. "This story is a story of friendship and love between Richard and Mildred and I'd never wanted to detract from those moments."