In "Don't Worry Darling," midcentury life in the idyllic community of Victory looks perfect — emphasis on the word "looks."
With the work of post-war society photographer Slim Aarons serving as inspiration, director Olivia Wilde (pulling double-duty by also playing Bunny) and her team leaned into the desert-paradise visual and feel of Palm Springs: sprawling midcentury architecture with covetable pools, swaying palm trees and never-ending cocktail hours. The husbands put on their suits and drive off to work at the mysterious Victory Project, which ambiguously entails "developing progressive materials." Their beautiful wives happily send them off with a prepared lunch before cleaning the house, only to welcome them home at the end of the day with a beverage, three-course meal and then some. All the while, the Victory wives are consistently and completely made-up and dressed.
"It's an opportunity to create a veneer and this presentational utopian world. When we're in Victory, it's really through the 'male gaze' in terms of this idealized woman in the '50s, '60s post-war," says costume designer Arianne Phillips, over Zoom.
"So that meant, for me, that we really got to experiment," continues the three-time Oscar nominee (and director Tom Ford's go-to). "I pushed the boundaries a bit, given that there's multiple layers to our narrative. I use heightened colors — colors that maybe are uncommon for the time period — and a lot of print to create this facade, in a way."
In addition to her own copious research (and expertise in designing midcentury-set films), Phillips referred to Wilde's mood boards and art photography inspo. (Fun fact: The movie's opening scene made it the first-ever film to shoot at the famous Kauffman Desert House at the center of Aarons' famous 1970 "Poolside Gossip" photo.) The wives' outfits are never wrinkled, with nary a stain; aprons are worn over flawless, pretty-as-a-picture outfits, evoking both "Leave It to Beaver" for the blissful domesticity, but also "Mad Men" for the underlying sensuality — but through the patriarchal perspective, of course. "Like at any moment, the husband could come home and she should be ready to jump in bed with him," says Phillips. "Her whole world is built around keeping her man happy."
The movie opens with a raucous house party with three couples getting increasingly sloppy: Victory mainstays Dean (Nick Kroll) and Bunny, Alice (Florence Pugh) and devoted hubby Jack (Harry Styles) and a seemingly perpetually pregnant, yet martini-swilling Peg (Kate Berlant) and Peter (Asif Ali). The wives demonstrate their exceptional lady-of-the-house poise and skillset by competing over who can balance a tray and highball glass on their head the longest.
Alice stands out from the other wives in a bold-red sleeveless dress (above) with a distinctive black pattern, like charcoal etchings. Phillips, who stocked up on authentic '50s materials to custom-design pieces (in addition to sourcing from her network of vintage dealers and rental houses), found the fabric at the storied Rose Bowl Flea Market.
"It really informed the energy I wanted to bring to this first scene," says Phillips. "They're having fun. It's a drinks party. They're dancing, and Alice is full of life. That print is full of life and had a lot of energy to it, and I love starting with red."
Collaborating with hair department head Jaime Leigh McIntosh and makeup department head Heba Thorisdottir, Phillips referred to screen legends Brigitte Bardot and Ann-Margret for Alice. She points out that most of Alice's silhouettes are streamlined sheaths, as opposed to the era's flouncier and full-skirted fit-and-flare. "It's really about being held and constricted," says Phillips. "But there's that sexuality in that sheath dress."
Alice's colors and silhouettes, like a fuchsia spaghetti-strap dress at a Victory Project summer party (top), usually stand out from the other wives — and typical midcentury fashion trends. At one point, she wears a sleeveless lattice-work black dress (above), with a full skirt, on the Victory tram to the indulgent wives' club. (Alice veers from her usual mid-afternoon routine of taking dance class and shopping free clothes while sipping cocktails.) Phillips looked to Italian screen siren Sophia Loren and filmmaker Federico Fellini's dreamlike reality (and vice versa) vision for Alice's foreboding look, as black was "an uncommon color" for women to wear during that time period.
"Without giving spoilers, these are Easter eggs," says Phillips, about a recurring black-and-white theme. "These are little Easter eggs designed for what is revealed later. Being out of time and out of place, and I liked the idea of using black on Alice, which felt more like an Italian '60s film."
Phillips referenced a vintage dress, which reminded her of a '50s-era Christian Dior (but wasn't), to custom-design a vulnerable-feeling rosy pink gown (above) for Alice to wear to a Victory Project cabaret party. Angling for a promotion, an excited Jack thoughtfully brings his wife this strapless gown, with a pointed and molded bodice, Grecian draping and delicate pleating at the waistline. "It's, I guess, what I think a man would [pick for her]," says Phillips. "There's a sensuality to it."
Enhanced by opulent vintage Bulgari jewels, Alice presents herself as the ideal wife to support her husband's career and smile nice for his boss: the always-lurking, cult-leader-like Frank (Chris Pine). That is, until she doesn't, and begins to frantically question WTF the Victory Project actually is. And why is she having waking nightmares of black-and-white, latex-clad, Busby Berkeley-esque dancers? (And, no, their pointed brassiere costumes aren't conical-bra odes to Madonna, whom Phillips has collaborated with since 1997. "There's always a little Madonna in me, but those bras are actually based on on real '50s bras," she says, with a laugh.)
"All the more reason that Alice should be this perfect [affectation] of femininity, and you see her unravel," continues Phillips. "So it's a nice juxtaposition in terms of what's going on with her internally."
Phillips also decked out all the Victory wives in opulent, one-off archival fine jewelry to give their looks more "gravitas," per the production notes. But, as Alice's look points forward the '60s in reflecting her equal-partnership-style relationship with Jack, her best friend Bunny's remains firmly in the '50s. "Like this idealized pinup woman," says Phillips, who put the self-assured and confident Bunny in "strong colors" like chartreuse and cobalt blue, plus "festive" pieces, like a vintage "seersucker-y waffle weave" and brightly printed off-the-shoulder top-and-skirt set (above).
"Bunny is 100% on board with everything about Victory," says Phillips. "She's no shrinking violet. She's definitely in charge of her own destiny. I think that she knows the role she's playing and she's perfectly happy in Victory living that life."
Everyone in town wants the approval and attention of Shelley (Gemma Chan), the dance class instructor and Frank's glamorous and elegant wife. As the matriarch of Victory, Shelley wields power and influence — also exhibited by her chic and precise dresses, which were actually inspired by the red carpet star herself.
"[Chan] has this lovely combination of strength and grace, and I really wanted to capture that. Shelley is a figurehead in the community," says Phillips. "I'm inspired, of course, by the character on page, but then meeting Gemma in the fitting room and putting costumes on her was a joy and a delight. It was like an embarrassment of riches. We found the character together."
Meanwhile, fresh-faced newcomer Violet (Sydney Chandler, above) only wears...purple flowers, which is so humorously and intentionally on-the-nose. "I was like, 'Oh! Well, how fun would it be to put Violet always in violet-colored clothes?" says Phillips with a laugh. "It's an idealized world with the perfect woman, according to each man in this world. And so these women are embodying their fantasy — really, this fantasy life."
But doting Jack — inspired by 1961 Warren Beatty in "Splendor In the Grass" — isn't like the other guys. In a pinnacle dream-husband moment of progressive domesticity, Jack's seen rushing about in the kitchen in a sweet attempt to make a roast and mashed potatoes — something fellow Victory husbands would probably never deign to do. His relaxation of traditional household roles is also seen through his unbuttoned color-blocked cardigan — open to reveal a white ribbed tank top — and one of Alice's aprons tied around his waist (below.)
"It was a welcome moment because most of the time you see Jack, he's wearing a suit. So this was an opportunity to show him relaxed and at home," says Phillips. "He clearly loves and cares about Alice so much — and is in love with Alice — and I wanted to show his playful side. He's definitely a romantic."
But otherwise, every day in Victory, "technical engineer" (whatever that is) Jack happily drives off to the office or attends company parties in one of his six custom-made midcentury suits and a smattering of authentic vintage '50s shirts.
"He was pretty much living the dream the whole way through," says Phillips.