How ‘Oppenheimer’ Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick Found the Perfect Hat

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Photo Source: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Over a 40-plus-year career, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick has created unforgettable sartorial moments with enduring appeal. In the ’80s, it was the bold monochromes of “Fatal Attraction” and Gordon Gekko’s yuppie-defining tailoring in “Wall Street”; more recently, her work on the first season of “Bridgerton” gave rise to the Regencycore trend. Mirojnick’s latest project, Christopher Nolan’s decades-spanning biopic “Oppenheimer,” is less opulent—but no less stylish—in its choice of statement pieces. 

“I learned very seriously the joy of being restrained and working minimally in a way that is the clear essence of design,” says Mirojnick. Here, the recent BAFTA and Oscar nominee discusses collaborating with Nolan and the film’s cast, and re-creating J. Robert Oppenheimer’s signature hat.

What was your starting point on “Oppenheimer”? 

This was the first time I had the opportunity to work with Chris. Chris is an extraordinary collaborator—and is 100% there to share clearly what he’s hoping for. That includes what he doesn’t want. [This discussion] happened at the beginning [of the project], so [I was] immediately immersed in the world of “Oppenheimer” [I had] to create. 

There were some specific points Chris brought: He did not want anyone else to wear a hat, with the exception of Oppenheimer, which was a very big note. I needed to find a different way to present the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that was accessible to a modern audience. That required me to dissect those periods and extract [their] essence, so we could feel the period without anyone [stating] it or any title that said “1935.” 

RELATED: How to Audition for a Christopher Nolan Production 

You mentioned the different periods, but Oppenheimer’s silhouette doesn’t change much over time. What did you discuss about his evolution from wearing a three-piece suit to a two-piece?  

It’s not only [going] from three to two [pieces] and the specificness of the suit. It’s what the suit does, what it will equal in terms of the silhouette. What is the message that it brings across? 

[Cillian Murphy] is such a great collaborator and partner. He comes [in with] no expectation. In terms of the silhouette of the suiting…we started in the ’20s, and he needed to look younger. 

We used a Norfolk jacket of the ’20s style, a sweater vest, a knitted tie, and very full-pleated, flannel pants. Then, we [moved] into a three-piece suit—so it’s a bit more tailored. That silhouette was the silhouette that lasted throughout his lifetime, with different moderation and different exaggeration. 

“Oppenheimer” sketchBy the time we move to the ’40s and [his work in] Los Alamos—[this] was his moment of power. What was most important first was that [his outfit] needed to look like a work suit and a working suit—a fabric that was not delicate, not tweedy. We chose a worsted cavalry twill, a tight fabrication that had a perfect drape. The shoulders were a bit exaggerated; they were more draped. The body was a little bit more draped, and the trousers were a bit fuller. 

All of that came together with this fabric because it had more flexibility. It served a double purpose. It served the fuller silhouette, a more powerful silhouette. It always looked fuller because of Oppenheimer’s fragility. It was the opposite of his physical strength. It was more about his physical fragility, and the suiting became his armor. 

It was through that silhouette that he was able to assume all that he was at that moment in time. Oppenheimer was someone who never did anything accidentally. It was all very planned. The hat was planned; the pipe was planned. 

Was Nolan in the room for Murphy’s hat fitting? How many hats did you try?

Chris is always in the room. I was so grateful for his and [producer] Emma [Thomas’] presence as we created this character. In the very beginning, makeup and hair—Luisa [Abel] and Jaime Leigh [McIntosh]—was in the room. Props was in the room. We work all together, at least for the beginning parts, to get [everything] in the right shape. 

The hat was very important, and there were no “hats,” plural, to try on. Cillian’s very first fitting happened right after Thanksgiving. I happened to quickly find a hat in a costume house that was similar—[though] not quite right—so [we] could get the effect. It was the first time [we] could see the silhouette and know what would work and what wouldn’t.

From that, we did take images of him in that hat, coupled with images of Oppenheimer in the hat. We didn’t have any measurements except Cillian’s size, and crown size, and sent [that] out to a great hatmaker in Italy [and] one in New York. Both makers made magnificent hats, but they weren’t right.

The last hatmaker was Baron Hats in Los Angeles, and [they] did it perfectly. It was like opening the best surprise present you could get when we opened that box. 

Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick (center) on the set of “Oppenheimer”

Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick (center) on the set of “Oppenheimer”

Let’s talk about the ensemble of scientists—the “Oppenhomies,” as they call themselves. What are the challenges of working with a cast this large?

The one overall note is that the “Oppenhomies” worked through a bunch of different time periods. What I did have to do was dissect those periods so that [the characters] could slide through time, because Chris manipulates time in a way like no other director does. You never wanted a costume to take the audience out of the picture. 

There’s a great manufacturer in New York: [Martin Greenfield Clothiers]. [They’re] a regular menswear manufacturer, and [they’ve] done a lot of work in period costume menswear. We assessed the situation and went to [them] and said, “This is what we need. This is when we’ll need it. Can we do it for a price that we could afford in our budget?”—which was not big at all. [They were] able to do it. 

We did a couple of different body styles that we could mix and match. We needed to find a way to be able to get as much as we possibly could in a shorter period. We had to be able to make more costumes than we were making. That was coupled with some rentals that were specific for each character, if we found pieces—or we made them, or we found them through vintage treasure hunting.

When all of these actors came in to be fit, they were so versed in their characters. We did have to take them away from the total exactness of certain things, but they were delighted and felt so full and filled with who they were meant to be once they left the fittings. 

You worked with Robert Downey Jr. on the 1992 biopic “Chaplin.” What was it like collaborating with the actor again 30 years later?

Oppenheimer sketch

Thirty-two years later, to be precise! Robert and I had not worked [together] in between, and we were so happy to see one another. Robert came in, and the most extraordinary déjà vu occurred, because within a couple of minutes, he put on a shirt, a tie, a suit, and a pair of glasses. We had an image of [Lewis] Strauss in a raincoat. He put that on top of it. 

The chills ran through my body, because it was the same exact thing that happened [when] working with him on the Little Tramp. You saw Robert go away as Chaplin emerged; and in the case of Strauss, within minutes, you saw Robert disappear and Lewis emerge. It was thrilling and chilling at the same time. We knew immediately that our work could begin.

What advice would you give someone who wants to enter the industry as a costume designer?

One of the most important things a young designer needs to take in hand is how they must learn to listen and communicate. It has nothing to do with how good a designer you are—but it will make you a better designer if you know how to listen and communicate your ideas in a clear manner. You have to be prepared to withstand the difficulty of the position and fulfill the director’s vision. Listening, patience, perseverance, and paying attention to all that surrounds you.

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