LOS ANGELES — Although white cotton dresses were the norm in Victorian England, for Mira Nair’s screen adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” opening Sept. 1, costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor had other ideas. She swathed leading lady Reese Witherspoon in colorful linen, satin, wool and waxed cotton, which was no easy task, given that the actress was three months pregnant when the 12-week shoot began.
“I was nervous at the beginning, thinking, ‘How can I make this work?’” says Pasztor via phone from Berlin, where she’s at work on the futuristic “Aeon Flux,” starring Charlize Theron. “I was surprised how well it worked out.”
Witherspoon’s 25 costumes, which chart heroine Becky Sharp’s rise from orphan to governess to scandalous socialite, often include a dark coat or jacket paired with a lighter-colored dress, which made her appear taller and slimmer. Pasztor also changed the lines of some of the dresses, cutting them under the bust rather than at the waist. “Her full bosom was a nice touch,” she notes. Although the Hungarian costume designer usually eschews modern fabrics for period films, she cheated a bit and used some stretch for an elaborate Indian-themed dance sequence, which Witherspoon performed when she was five months pregnant.
As if the flounces and trains weren’t enough, the actress also sported some elaborate hairdos. “It tells the story of her social climb, as she would have gotten more extravagant and fashionable with her hair,” says hair and makeup artist Penny Shircore. “But obviously we exaggerated.” The bows, braids and Apollo knots (false, stiffened loops of hair) were assembled when Witherspoon wasn’t present, then piled atop her head and filled in with whatever ornamentation suited the costume. The process took almost two hours each day.
By contrast, her makeup was simple and fresh, almost modern. But then some looks do stand the test of time.
Surprisingly, in “Aeon Flux,” which takes place circa 2400, Pasztor says, “we’re actually going very natural and using the same linen as we did in ‘Vanity Fair.’”
— Marcy Medina