With a career that spans decades, Academy Awards for “All That Jazz” and “Bugsy,” and “Rules Don’t Apply” about to bring his work back to the screen, Albert Wolsky seems destined to have become a costume designer.
But Wolsky, who is now 85, came to costume design late in life after deciding that he no longer wanted to work in the travel industry with his family. “I was living in Brooklyn in a brownstone and going up the stairs and I had an epiphany that I loved fashion and I loved the theater so why not costume design?” Wolsky says. “I thought it would pass but it didn’t.”
He was introduced to Helene Pons, the renowned costume designer who worked on such shows as “Our Town,” “Babes in Arms,” and “My Fair Lady,” and thus started one of the most storied careers in Hollywood.
Wolsky’s first big break came when he was hired to assist with the costumes on the Broadway production of “Camelot” in 1959. His work stood out and he was given his own shows to costume, which caught Hollywood’s attention. His artistry can be seen everywhere from the TV movie “Of Mice and Men” to beloved movie musicals like “Grease” and elegant character-driven stories like “Manhattan.”
“I was 30 by the time I started and I felt that I had to learn quickly, to work hard and I think that was an advantage because it drove me,” Wolsky says. “That and I was very lucky.”
Wolsky starts work on any project by doing two things — speaking with the director to get a sense of how costumes can help tell the story and then meticulously researching all aspects of the period in which a story takes place. He says he focuses on the director more than anything, and these core relationships have led to long-term collaborations. He made three films with Bob Fosse, more than 10 with Paul Mazursky, and has worked with Woody Allen, Sam Mendes, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nora Ephron, and Mike Nichols, among others in his long career. “Rules Don’t Apply” will be his second film with Warren Beatty.
Beatty’s film is set in the Fifties and follows two star-crossed lovers who are brought together when they both go to work for the famous billionaire and — by that time recluse — Howard Hughes. Wolsky, who oversaw all costumes on the project, has been discussing the film off and on with Beatty for the last 20 years, but only saw the finished script this year.
“I love doing research and sometimes I love the research so much I enjoy it more than the actual movie,” laughs Wolsky. “For this period, the Fifties, things were very specific. People dressed in a certain way and that reflected how rigid this period was.”
Wolsky worked with Beatty to create a look for Howard Hughes (played by the director) that reflects all of his research, but also represents an invented version of Hughes. By pouring over historic photos of Hughes, Wolksy noticed that the aviation entrepreneur often wore plain slacks in the style of the day, a white shirt, a tie typical of the time, and a leather bomber jacket along with a hat. Beatty wanted to emulate and embrace that iconic style since it was one of the looks that came to define Hughes on the rare occasions he was seen in public.
The costume designer believes great style on-screen emerges when an actor can feel the character in the clothes, a precept that guided him in his collaboration with the film’s Lily Collins on her wardrobe as Marla Mabrey. Her clothes reflect the deepest character shift in the film: Mabrey, after leaving Hughes’ employment, returns to meet with the billionaire and his assistant. But she shows up for the meeting striking a determined pose and wearing pants — a shocking, bold choice for a character who spent the larger part of the film in the restrictive dresses dictated by the period.
“We tried a lot of things for that moment but when we got to those pants both Lily and I knew it was right, and those are the moments you love as a costume designer,” says Wolsky, who defines great style as “something very simple and very striking,” concluding, “It’s very rare these days.”