Hollywood Costume Designer Mark Bridges on His Creative Approach

by Bella Gladman on 10 February 2020

Nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Costume Design Joker, Bridges explains why you should never underestimate the transformative power of a coloured sock.

Nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Costume Design Joker, Bridges explains why you should never underestimate the transformative power of a coloured sock.

Mark Bridges has been a costume designer for over thirty years. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including 2019’s Joker), and winner of two (in 2012, for The Artist, and 2017, for Phantom Thread), Bridges is a self-described ‘showbiz veteran’. Although, as he says, ‘the nature of the work keeps [him] real,’ noting ‘it’s hard to be too full of yourself when you’re digging through boxes of dirty boots.’ Here, he speaks about his approach to costume design, career highlights, and the transformative power of coloured socks.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Niko Tavernise.

Bella Gladman: What sparked your interest in costume design?

Mark Bridges: As a child, I was really into clothes, whether taking a blanket and turning it into Roman garb or thinking about how to dress myself. Halloween would be my favourite holiday - we'd always make a costume rather than buying one. As I got older, in high school, there were school plays and community theatre.

I grew up in a TV age, in the east, where the winters keep you inside: I had Bob Mackie's costumes coming at me every week, via Sonny and Cher and the Carol Burnett Show, and I developed a real love of movies: Gilbert Adrian’s work on classic films from MGM, like The Wizard of Oz. Adrian and Mackie were the first two designers who made me realise that costume design could really be a job, a vocation.

I went to a really great school [Stony Brook University] where there was a great costume shop there. I was studying theatre - acting, writing, dramaturgy but always doing my own costumes. Eventually doing costume worked out.

Because of my love for movies, I always ultimately wanted to work on them, thinking, ‘One day, if everything works out, maybe I could win an Academy Award!’ Big dreams for a kid from Niagara Falls, New York! Costume design was my way into the movie business: I enjoyed and was good at it, so I pursued it.

BG: How did you transition from amateur to professional?

MB: My first paid job in costume design was the summer after I got out of college. I worked at Stagedoor Manor, a kids’ theatrical summer camp in the Catskills, where the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Josh Charles, Sarah Jessica Parker went when they were kids, as one of the costume designers there.

I met the head costume designer, and she had extra room in her New York apartment and I wanted to move to New York, so I moved in, and worked as a shopper at Barbara Matera Ltd, a company which made all the Broadway costumes at the time. I learned all about the fabric stores, I saw the greatest designers of Broadway at that time come in - legends like Irene Sharaff, Milena Canonero, Raoul Pène du Bois, Willa Kim. As a kid of 23, it was great to be exposed to that.

I knew I wanted to continue my education, so I went back to school, this time to the Tisch School of Arts at New York University for three years, receiving a Master’s in Fine Arts.

Then I tried to get jobs in films in New York, just doing anything I could do. For a long time, I was like the hundred-dollar-a-day guy, essentially a PA, who would do anything that was needed. I worked for a costume designer named Richard Hornung on Miller’s Crossing, by the Coen brothers. I was only supposed to work there a couple of weeks sizing vintage clothes but I ended up being the New York assistant for the whole production, while they were on location. Richard Hornung went out to LA, and his next movie was The Grifters. He asked me if I wanted to come out there and assist, and I was like, ‘Yeah!’ That was when I was 29. And here I stay.

BG: You’ve worked with Paul Thomas Andersen since the beginning of his feature film career. How did that partnership come about?

MB: Someone recommended me to Paul or Paul's producer. At the time, Paul had started his first movie, which was Sydney, and he had secured a production office, and for some reason, it went down. When the film went back into production, he had lost his costume designer - she was going to go have a baby or something.

They were looking for someone, and meanwhile, I’d designed some smaller features, but I was hungry for new projects, to work with different directors, always trying to move ahead. I said, ‘Sure, I'd love to meet this first time director,’ He was like 10 years younger than me. I read his script, liked it and thought I could do something with it. We met and hit it off. I wanted to show him some of my work, and said, ‘Why don't you come to the screening of a film that I did the costumes for?’

I thought it was showing at the Directors Guild, but we went to the Directors Guild and, nope. He goes, 'Maybe it's at the Writers Guild!' So we hopped in the car to Beverly Hills. We went in just when my movie was coming on. It was a short film - The Investigator, with Anne Heche and Vincent D’Onofrio, supported by Chanticleer Films. Paul liked what I did with the outerwear in it: for his film, we were going to shoot for 24 nights in Reno in February. So we needed to have coats! We will. Yeah, we went and worked on it. And that was nice. That was February 1995 - 25 years ago.

Phantom Thread (2017)

BG: What’s the balance between designing from scratch, and sourcing archival pieces?

MB: It varies from script to script, it’s a combination of what’s found and what's made, depending on the requirements in the script and what story you want to tell.

I try to put my hands on a lot of real things, from materials to dead stock. LA is set up to make films: there are eight or ten costume houses that have period costumes for rent. You see where you are with that, and then you work with each actor, see which pieces work, and what else you need.

For Boogie Nights, we went to St. Louis, Missouri and we bought all kinds of clothes from this dead stock place: things that have never been worn. But then, for certain moments in the script, you have to make the costumes. For when Dirk goes to the adult film awards ceremony, I had an idea for a brushed denim tuxedo. We made that, and all of Buck’s things needed to be made because they were so specific.

For Phantom Thread, we needed the clothes to look like they came right out of Reynolds Woodcock’s workroom. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum archives and looked at actual British couture from that period, even when kept in the very best environments, the pieces look a little tired. We had to make everything so that they’d look absolutely fresh and pristine.

Costume is a little random, like people's wardrobes themselves. For Joker, Todd Phillips [the director] wanted the film to seem real. So we needed to think about what the character would have access to, and how he goes from being a sad sack clown for hire to the Joker. He can't just magically like show up in a purple suit with striped pants, like the cartoon character. That outfit had to come from someplace! For the Joker’s outfit, I used the yellow waistcoat from Arthur Fleck’s clown costume, and the suit that he wore doing stand-up: I used the same cut and details, with the colour pumped up. The scenes are far enough apart when you see it, so you can't really put your finger on what’s different.

BG: What considerations does a costume designer need to make?

MB: Another phrase for costume design is costume planning. A movie is the sum of its parts - I look at every background player. All those pieces from the smallest extra to the main principals, all of it works together to give you a final product. I don't think any of it can be left to chance. It's always a bit tense, making sure you provide enough from the outset, then going into the unknown hoping the things you have will go the distance.

Various jobs have various prep times. I just did a movie with Tom Hanks, set in 1870, called News of the World. I had the script early because I've worked with the director, Paul Greengrass before. I probably had 14-16 weeks’ prep. We had to make all of Tom's clothes and their multiples. We even had to have deerskin tanned with wood smoke so that we could make authentic Native American dress. For Marriage Story I had like six weeks' prep on that, at the most. It was a modern show, it was an independent film with a lower budget film.

When we did, There Will Be Blood, a lot were one-off antique pieces. You pray to God that nothing happens to them because they were just so perfect. For News of the World, I knew that Tom had to wear things for a really long time and that he was also going to have a stunt double and a photo double. So as a costume designer, you make as many multiples as you can afford and as time allows. You shoot for making, like, half a dozen, but even then you're biting your nails.

It comes back to the practical aspect of getting enough fabric. We had fabrics woven for Tom so that we could get enough of this rustic-looking fabric. We needed a long prep time because they can't weave it fast enough. For a young girl’s costume, we had to go to eight different sources to get enough fabric to do the required multiples.

BG: What about laundry?

MB: Like I said, LA is set up for filmmaking and there are several options for overnight dry cleaning. Adrian at MGM is credited with the whole idea of overnight dry cleaning for movies in the thirties. If you’re shooting elsewhere, it becomes more about protecting the clothes with under layers and dress shields. There’s a spray that freshens the clothes when you air them out, it's very hygienic - called EndBac. And then there's a certain bunch of costumes that need to be done nightly, the regular old-fashioned hand-wash.

BG: How much is planning, and how much is serendipity?

MB: The Artist, the silent black and white film that I got my first Oscar for was a miracle show, It was a very small budget - like $10 million - shot here in LA. It was a labour of love, we all wanted to do it and the director believed in it so much. It was only going to be a very small film. Near the end of shooting, the crew was asking like, 'So how are we going to be able to see this when it's over?’ It could have just languished in a DVD rental store in Paris, someplace. It wasn't ever thought of as Best Picture, which it ultimately went on to win. The biggest dress in that film was made from a piece of black, lamé fabric I found while digging in a bin at Mood Fabrics in LA. That dress went on to be part of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A. There are all these costume gods intervening all the time to help me. There are 100 fortuitous stories like that.

I just had a weird moment on News of the World too, where the director wanted a hat for Tom's character. I met a hat maker who works for the opera in Santa Fe, and I designed a hat with her and she created it. I brought it to Tom, and he wasn’t planning to wear a hat for this scene at all. I left in his dressing room, thinking, maybe he can try it on, see if he likes it. I never saw it on him.

Later that night, we're doing the scene, and it's raining, and Tom’s like, 'Do you have that hat? I think I might need it.' As of 15 minutes ago, we weren’t going to use it! I was like, 'Oh, please, God, let this hat work!' He puts it on, and it looks fabulous, he goes to set and he does the scene.

BG: What skills do you need to be an exceptional costume designer?

MB: Certainly, the imagination of how the printed page can be realised into a 3D garment. I also think a heavy dose of diplomacy, when moving your way through the hierarchy of producers, directors, actors, dressmakers, technicians, accountants, studio heads. That was one of the strong suits of arguably the most famous costume designer, Edith Head. Tippi Hedren once told me that Head was remarkable: she would get what she wanted, but everybody always thought that it was their idea.

You do need to know about dressmaking, and it helps to be able to draw. It's important to have a healthy dose of scholarly interest in what you're doing, and an appreciation for the storytelling and the drama. It's not just about hemlines and the shape of the shoulder. You're constantly thinking: who is this character? Where do they get their clothes? What are they trying to say about themselves? How do they appear to the world? How rich are they? How sexy do they feel? And then it’s asking: what mood does this scene have? What film are we making?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s tragedy “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Niko Tavernise.

BG: How does working with other people on set affect your process?

MB: I don't work in a vacuum. I work with actors and directors, and I'm open to suggestions, too. I've had the privilege to work with Daniel Day-Lewis on two occasions, including Phantom Thread where it was a world, a society, a class, that he was familiar with. He knows that language of those aesthetes, how they might jazz up an outfit. A guy with a black sock, or a guy with a magenta sock? Those are two different people.

The casting makes a difference to what costumes will work. For Marriage Story, I wasn't initially sure who was cast as the high price lawyer: it ended up as Ray Liotta, but if it had been, say, Bryan Cranston, he would have played the role differently, and he has a different physique. As a costume designer, you’re constantly adjusting what you're doing, because you are dealing with an actual human body and its performance.

My favourite part of my job is when I'm in a fitting room with my actors and something clicks, and a third person, who was never there before, emerges. For The Fighter, Melissa Leo was playing Mark Wahlberg's mother, and we'd had a fitting and she still had her regular brown wavy hair. I got a note from the director, like, ‘Could she be “sexier”?’ So she had her hair bleached blonde, and I re-pulled outfits for her; some heels, foundation garments. And suddenly, about halfway through the second fitting, there becomes a person who wasn't there before. The character came alive, because she's moving and feeling a different way, maybe doing some of her lines that she's been working on, that is always a charge of electricity for me.

It happened with Joaquin when he first tried on his Joker suit. He started to move his hips and strut around differently. And I knew I was onto something. That’s when I feel like, ‘This is why I'm here.’

BG: How does contemporary fashion relate to costume design?

MB: I feel like it's a very different world - contemporary fashion fascinates me, I don’t understand it all. When I do my work, I have at least the parameters of a script, time, place, and an actor's body, but with fashion, there's a whole world to pull from. I was blown away by the McQueen and the Charles James exhibitions at the Met. I was fascinated by the inspirations that created these things. If I was doing a certain film, I might want to reference some of those pieces. You can see the DNA of certain fantasy films, like The Huntsman, owes a debt of gratitude to McQueen’s use of nature in clothes.

BG: How has your experience in costume spilt over into the rest of your life?

MB: When I did Phantom Thread, I was exposed to the world of Savile Row tailoring, through Anderson & Sheppard. They made me a suit, and I’m a complete convert. I understand why people have bespoke suits made because it is unquestionably the best-looking, most well-fitting thing, that I could never have imagined that I’d have.

On meeting people, I do take clues on who they are by some of their clothing choices or how they feel about themselves, but I'm filing it away, thinking, 'I'm going to use that.' I take pictures of people, or details, without them knowing if I see them on the street or in the tube. I recently saw someone walking on the UCLA campus, who had two different white socks. The stripes were orange, red and yellow on one, and then blue, green and purple on the other, so together, it made the rainbow flag. I felt like they were trying to communicate that through other parts of the way they dressed too. I thought, ‘This sock is a subtle little thing that I might want to do for a gay or transgendered character in the future.’

I was telling you about the magenta socks too - even a small detail like the colour of a sock can communicate so much of a difference in personality. Remember that, the next time you go to your sock drawer!