Byline: Merle Ginsberg

LOS ANGELES — It should come as no surprise that fashion’s current craving for corsets, fishnets and frou-frou coincides with the release of “Moulin Rouge,” Australian director Baz Luhrman’s fin-de-siecle film filled with wall-to-wall frippery. The infamous late 19th century Paris can-can club was, after all, the place where Victoriana first veered toward vixen.
The task fell to Catherine Martin, the costume and production designer of the film, to reinterpret the decadent showgirls of Galliano, Versace, Lacroix and Ungaro for Nicole Kidman, who plays the club’s star dancer and porcelain-skinned courtesan, Satine.
Not only did “C.M.” — a nickname given her by Luhrman, who happens to be her husband — draw on recent fashion, but also on fact: The paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (played in the film by John Leguizamo) have made familiar the rouge-et-noir looks worn by famous can-can dancers of the period.
“Baz’s first thing was to start historically,” Martin explains from their Bazmark Productions offices, tucked into a little cottage on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. The Aussie costume and production designer of both of Luhrman’s previous films, “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo and Juliet,” was a little sleepy, having stayed up all night with Luhrman and his editors finessing the last details of the only print of the film, which they were bringing to New York that afternoon for tonight’s premiere.
“Luckily, we were in New York at the start of the project and I went to the Metropolitan Costume Institute,” she says. “It was more amazing than I could have hoped. I pulled heaps and heaps of clothing and took tons of photos. Their stocking collection was particularly interesting to us. We kind of extrapolated from the stockings of the time to do ours, which are really ornate. But it was interesting to see the detail and intricacy of what was there.”
The haute hosiery of the time will not be available at Bloomingdale’s New York or Los Angeles “Moulin Rouge” boutiques — nor are they depicted in the film. And for good reason. “Kicking up your legs and showing your undies was really shocking because people wore split undies — the two legs weren’t sewn together,” says Martin. “Sometimes the girls didn’t wear undies at all. In fact, government agents were sent to the clubs to come round and check. Imagine having that job.
“I’m not being racy,” she insists. “Queen Victoria wore split knickers and that was just the way they were made in the 19th century. For practicality. Can you imagine having to go pee-pee with all those clothes on? We obviously weren’t going to recreate that in a PG-13 movie — but we had to find a way to make a world of entertainment under the women’s dresses.”
That meant making the petticoats — dozens of them — in various colors, even though most of the dancers donned white underskirts. “We discovered in Degas’s paintings that only one dancer, Jane Avril, wore colored underskirts,” says Martin. “That was her gimmick. She was known as ‘the elegant can-can dancer.”‘
After their initial historical research, Luhrman instructed the crew to go wild and even somewhat contemporary, but to stay rooted in fact. The result is more an homage to a time than a recreation of it: In fact, the movie’s biggest can-can numbers are danced to the music of Fatboy Slim and to a truncated version of “Like a Virgin.”
“It was a wild, extravagant dance, instead of a line kick where everybody dressed and moved identically,” says Martin. “It was more like sexy breakdancing. The girls would get into a circle and do wild, acrobatic steps. Baz used modern music to illustrate the immediacy of it all.”
While the top hats and bowlers worn by Kidman, Ewan MacGregor and many of the other players were modeled after 19th century originals, the shoes of “Moulin Rouge” are much like those of the fall fashion season. “We had a shoemaker in Australia design a can-can boot, a Mary Jane and a granny laceup boot,” Martin explains. “The toes are particularly pointy, so we had to squeeze all the poor damsels into them. Nicole had hundreds of pairs. And then, just to go modern, she wears Manolo Blahnik mules in one scene.”
Martin admits she’s a fashion freak (“I spend every waking minute when I’m not working on or Net-a-Porter buying Jimmy Choo shoes,” she says), and that her “Moulin Rouge” looks were indeed inspired by some of her favorite designer details: “The shoulder lines of Thierry Mugler, the high tailoring of Gaultier and McQueen, Colette Dinnegan’s embroidery details, Dolce and Gabbana’s tailored tuxedos with ruffle shirts. Dior’s Belle Epoque collection was the starting point for us. It was about that place between what was and what inspires you. Boy, am I glad minimalism is dead.”