For this week’s Halloween frock flick, I picked more of a creepy noir tale than a horror story. Nightmare Alley (2021) is set among circus people and con artists in the late 1930s / early 1940s, and the costumes by Luis Sequeira are a real treat this Tuesday!
The movie does start right off with killing a chicken, and the ending is rather brutal, so this isn’t a sweet little story. But if you’ve seen any other productions by writer / director Guillermo del Toro, you know this one’s going to be dark, weird, and complicated. It’s also a little slow going, so you have to buy into Bradley Cooper since he carries much of the plot as grifter Stanton Carlisle. Myself, I was more interested in the other actors / characters. Things pick up when Cate Blanchett joins the story nearly halfway through as Dr. Lilith Ritter.
Still, there’s some costumes! At first, we see the carnival garb, which ranges from drab and distressed to sparkly and outrageous. In a SlashFilm interview, Luis Sequeira said:
“We did an immense amount of research. What was great also was to be able to get to Europe and pull all these wonderful vintage and period clothing to dress all the background and creating a world with these beautiful pieces.”
He told Vogue: “Most of the characters in the carnival are past their prime, so I wanted a lot of the costumes to look aged and worn out to show that history.”
Certain characters stand out, like the fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette). Continuing in Vogue, the costume designer said:
“Zeena experienced her heyday earlier in the ’20s, so you see her in one of those theatrical quick-change costumes that she would’ve worn time and time again. We had the embroidery done in India and oxidized it when we got it back to really show that Zeena had gotten a good 15 years of use out of those garments.”
Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) also gets a wild costume because she performs an electrical act at the carnival — her skimpy outfit is a point of contention in the story.
Then the movie jumps forward two years to 1941, and Stanton is in a fancy nightclub doing a mind-reading act with Molly. Their outfits are now super formal, with him in white tie and tails and her in long sparkly gowns.
Dr. Lilith Ritter is first glimpsed wearing this gown:
When she interacts with Stan and Molly’s performance, she’s wearing this caped gown:
Lilith is always in dark colors, but Molly gets a touch of red off-stage. As designer Luis Sequeira said in the Vogue interview:
“Molly has to leave her performance outfits at the Copa, so Stan purchases her a beautiful red coat to secure that look of glamour. But underneath she wears something a little plainer that harkens back to her former life.”
If you like art deco interiors, you’ll love the city scenes filmed in Buffalo, NY, and especially Lilith’s office! Sure, she has some nice suits, but that office is glorious.
The costume designer was definitely into the period, as he told SlashFilm:
“I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I have a ton of catalogs from 1921 to ’50s, and in essence, I have a representation of every two years. So we were able to really isolate, ‘Okay, what is this time? What is five years back? What happened 10 years back?’ And it was very informative in the sense of what was chosen and not speed-balling ahead in time and likewise with the city work. I was fortunate to have collected some old Paris sketchbooks from 1939 collections and 1940 collections. And in the case with Cate, we were looking through them and looking at all the precise details; the yolk of her blouse. That was a detail that we saw and said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be amazing.'”
Have you seen Nightmare Alley?