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‘Gatsby’ designer creates new look

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in one of costume designer Catherine Martin’s creations.Warner Brothers Pictures

‘The Great Gatsby” costume designer Catherine Martin sounds oddly calm and remarkably patient as she fields questions about the wardrobe she created for the movie adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic that comes to theaters on May 10.

Martin, who is married to “Gatsby” director Baz Luhrmann, dreamed up the looks for the movie, set among monied Long Islanders in the Roaring Twenties. “Gatsby”-era styles have had a strong influence on the runways for the past two years, including flapper dresses, headpieces, and details such as fringe, feathers, and metallic fabrics — all of which have been seen in fashion capitals and glossy magazines as anticipation of the film has grown. The only thing missing has been a revival of the Charleston.

There’s immense pressure on Martin, but if she’s feeling the weight of all of those heavilyfringed and crystal-covered dresses, she’s not letting it show.


“The pressure that I find is to help tell the story,” Martin said, on the phone from New York this week. “I want to help the actors and support their characterization. I think the other pressure that I feel is that Baz didn’t want a nostalgic New York.”

Martin’s goal: to make 1920s New York feel as visceral, modern, and vibrant as it would have when Fitzgerald was there. This is not the painstakingly accurate version of 1922 as depicted in, say, “Downton Abbey,” nor does it resemble anything that might be found in a museum retrospective on the era.

There are moments when Martin’s 1922 party scenes have the feel of a Beyoncé and Jay-Z- hosted 1920s-themed soiree as flappers sporting champagne-soaked sequin dresses shimmy shamelessly.

That’s not to say Martin, who is also credited as a producer and production designer for the film, ignored the past. When she and Luhrmann began envisioning the look of “Gatsby” nearly three years ago, she set out on an extensive research project that shaped the look of the film — from the interior of Gatsby’s mansion to the bleak appearance of the Valley of Ashes.


“When adapting an original work, whether it’s ‘La Boheme’ on Broadway, or whether it’s ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ you always start with the source,” she said. “You’re like a historical detective as you start creating what [Fitzgerald’s] descriptions would have actually looked like. I suppose it’s academic treatises on the book itself.”

Fitzgerald’s vivid descriptions, told through the eyes of midwestern outsider and bond salesman Nick Carraway, allowed Martin to craft the elaborate ensembles worn by Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the object of Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) affections and the wife of strapping polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

But Martin also had the advantage of 1920s photographs and films. Women were starting to abandon their corsets and heavy underpinnings in favor of the shift dresses that showed their bodies more comfortably than ever before.

Her clothing reflects the pre-crash vivacity, prosperity, and optimism of the 1920s. The jewels worn on set (courtesy of Tiffany & Co.) were worth millions. In a key party scene, Mulligan’s character wears what Martin refers to as the “chandelier dress,” a dreamy party frock covered with tear-drop crystals (in the film, the dress was made with acrylic crystals to make it lighter for Mulligan).

“Fitzgerald wrote that Daisy’s voice was full of money,” Martin says. “I went to an all-girl’s school, and I thought about the most popular girl in school. That was the image that I wanted for Daisy.”

While Martin spent the majority of her time focused on the ensembles for the film’s main characters, she couldn’t overlook the matter of outfitting Gatsby’s 300 party guests. The extras needed to look every bit as privileged as their host. Fitzgerald describes these guests as arriving en masse from the city every weekend, uninvited and ready for a good time. Even a costume designer who won an Oscar for her work on Luhrmann's 2001 “Moulin Rouge” needed back-up for dressing this horde.


Luhrmann relied on his relationship with Miuccia Prada to collaborate with Martin to create 40 dresses for female guests. Prada adapted 40 dresses from the Prada and Miu Miu archives for those extras.

“When I read [the book], it was psychological. It was not about glamour for me. It was a real [study of] personality, very internalized,” Prada told Vogue UK. “It was meant to be about light. It became about money, because Luhrmann wanted to show her as the most beautiful and rich woman on earth.”

That Martin’s work and the theatrical release of “Gatsby” have ignited a new passion for the 1920s is not surprising to fashion and film historians.

“I think it’s a decade that’s romanticized because people see it as one big party,” says Michelle Tolini Finamore, curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. “It was a period when, arguably, women were liberated socially. There was a cocktail culture and women started getting out of the house. Clothing-wise it was pretty much new. All of it was socially quite new.”

But regardless of how pretty it all looks, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, author, professor, and the Academy Award-nominated costume designer responsible for creating the fedora worn by Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Michael Jackson’s iconic red jacket in the “Thriller” video, said the costumes or their pop culture influence won’t register unless this interpretation of “Gatsby” captivates.


“When an audience sits down to watch a movie, they have to buy into a character from the very first frame,” Landis said. “What we care about is what happens to them and not the clothes. Unless, it’s ‘Cinderella,’ the clothes alone will not make a movie, they’ll make a fashion show.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther