By now, you’ve at least seen images of nearly unrecognizable Glenn Close and Amy Adams as Mamaw and Bev Vance, respectively, in Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Here’s how costume designer Virginia Johnson helped transform the film’s superstars into Appalachians in Netflix’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir.
How would you describe the role of the costume designer?
I’ve always described what I do as: create the visual vocabulary for the clothing. I’m just building on the storytelling, but through the clothes. I’m literally a supporting role. How I talk to my crew is always: “We’re just ingredients in a bigger cake, and so we just have to make sure that we are adding the right ingredients so we bake the best cake.” We’re taking the words and making them visually make sense to people watching. As we dress ourselves every day, even if we’re not even thinking about it, the vocabulary of how we dress describes ourselves. I’m just building the same kind of closet for each character, regardless of if it’s a true story or a fictional one. It’s understanding that person’s point of view and shopping for them.
“Hillbilly Elegy” centers on a real family. How much research did you do for these looks?
I did a ton of research. I really dug deep into the history of Middletown, Ohio, as well as the Vance family. I watched so many hours of home videos, and [I] just feel so lucky that I got to meet with Lindsay [Vance] and ask her really specific questions, and I got to talk to Bev. I started with questions I don’t think they were expecting, like: “Do you remember your favorite place to go shopping? Do you remember the shoes?” For Lindsay it was: “Was there any article of clothing Bev didn’t like that you loved to wear?” I asked them about growing up and who took them shopping, and then we researched those stores. We had tons of Montgomery Ward and Sears and JCPenney catalogs from that era, because prior to the internet, you would get the catalog and see what was in the mall. A lot of those clothes don’t exist anymore, right? So we used that as the template for making clothes for our needs, which is pretty wild.
How did you work with Glenn Close and Amy Adams to develop these looks that are very far from who they are?
The great thing for all of us was that we had access to the Vance family, to talk to them and ask them questions, but also then [to] develop our own sense of freedom and trust to work out what this looked like—how we would interpret what we had heard and seen in a way that would work for the film. I gave both of them these spiral-bound books of research starting in the ’40s—the beginning of the Vance family, when Mamaw and Papaw met—and going through to J.D. graduating from Yale and meeting Usha. It’s a huge timeline of research, and it had research of the towns, as well as family photos and photos of the people who lived in those towns.
We all had the visual vocabulary to talk about the period of time and what someone might have worn. We were like, This is from a family reunion in the state. This is how hot it was and who was hosting it. So we could talk about: Is this appropriate for the scene? Or, because we’re shooting a different season, what other things in this book are starting points for us to decide what they wear? It’s very labor-intensive, but I do these boards with all of my fitting photos where I map out the scenes, and we put Velcro on the boards. We can take the photos and put everybody up and see what they look like together. We have background photos, too. So, for a funeral sequence, it’s making sure we don’t see a repeated pattern or hem length. We would do that with all the different silhouettes we would try on each of our actresses, to really see how the two of them balanced or were in conflict with one another via color palette and silhouette. We needed to show the chaos of Bev, which also needed to be part of that visual storytelling.
Some of the outfits, specifically Mamaw’s, are very out there, but they’re based on a real person. How did you keep them from looking like costumes?
We actually dialed her back. In watching some of these home videos, I was like, Oh, my God, that is so over the top. We wanted to get to the essence of her, but I didn’t want her to ever feel like a caricature. I also didn’t want her to feel like we had tried to make her feel like any grandmother, either. This person was very specific to her understanding of her place in the world. After her own struggles rising into that working middle class, she had a really specific style, and we wanted to stay true to that. But I didn’t want her to come across as a joke, and that was really important. It’s also important to see her in these oversized clothes, these really baggy clothes that repeat themselves over the course of multiple years, to show this isn’t somebody who goes shopping every year. She owns what she owns, and they have to last, because what she is saving her money for is her family, her grandkids. There’s also something really powerful about the fact that she wears men’s pants and she’s wearing oversized men’s T-shirts a lot of the time, because after her husband dies, J.D. has no real father figure. She fills the role of matriarch and patriarch for that family.
How did you first get into costume design?
I didn’t even know that being a costume designer was a job. I constantly think: If I’d known it was a job, would I actually be a costume designer? I am the daughter of a career Navy man and a Filipina immigrant. We were just raised to get really good grades and think about how we could have a life of service and improve on their very working class roots. I thought I would be a doctor. When I started my college education, I was a bio [and] pre-med major. I happened to get a job in the costume shop because I needed a work study job. I’ve been sewing since I was 6; it was something I did with my grandmother. I was like, Oh, my God, someone’s gonna pay me to sew! When I thought about sewing, just because of my upbringing, I thought about all the women who worked in factories making Nike shoes and Gap T-shirts, and I never thought about sewing for theater. I’m still in touch with the costume design professor and shop manager, because they really did change the direction of my life by giving me that job. I would never have done that. It was just an accident—or fate.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue costume design?
It’s just really important to get experience. Working in theater, working in film, I know that they’re different mediums, but I find that having worked and trained in theater has informed what I do for film and [gotten me] thinking about broad strokes of storytelling. But because of film, I now can also focus on the minutiae in any tiny scene. Having that range of experience is key to developing your own vocabulary. I didn’t start as a costume designer; I started as a stitcher, and I have done a lot of different jobs. Every single one was a way for me to observe and learn how other people handle not just the work, but the stress of the work, how they interpret what their job is, and how they can be supportive within the costume department.
I’d say, just do everything if you can. Also, as a costume designer, I think it’s really important to make sure to provide opportunities for people that are paying—paid opportunities. Going back to my origin story, if I hadn’t gotten a paid work study job in the costume shop, I would not be able to do what I do now. I didn’t have the financial freedom to just be an intern, and I think that’s really important. I push for that, and I always want, as a department, to give people opportunities to expand on their skills and get experiences that maybe they didn’t have access to.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 31 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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