What the clothes in ‘May December’ say about Gracie, Joe and Elizabeth

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Gracie and Joe Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton), the main characters in Netflix's "May December," don't usually tell the whole story of their relationship. They were brought together by a controversial and illegal act that became (fictional) tabloid fodder 20 years earlier.

Gracie, then in her 30s, was caught having sex with then 13-year-old Joe while they worked together at a pet store. After serving time in prison, Gracie eventually married Joe and had three children with him, living a quiet life in a town on the coast of Georgia.

Costume designer April Napier's job was to make sure their outfits aligned with the film's storyline, as actor Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) comes to a small town in Georgia to research her role as Gracie in an upcoming independent film.

Napier tells TODAY.com the characters’ clothes, and their evolution, were crucial to showing how Elizabeth’s arrival starts to undo the stories they’ve created about themselves.

"Our first fitting was Julianne, and once we had all of her changes done, then we had a map so we could see the progress of her character," Napier says.

"The next day Natalie came in, so that we’d mark her introduction, and then how she changes. She comes wearing monochromatic navies, blacks, grays, and then she turns into ivories and tans, then they become more petal colors," she says.

Portman tells TODAY.com about how her character Elizabeth herself starts to become entranced in the couple's story.

"As the movie goes on, she goes more and more into Gracie’s world, so we worked a lot with costume, hair and makeup to start transitioning and we had it very mapped out so that it would be very subtle," Portman says. "Part of it was that it wouldn’t alarm Gracie —  you wouldn’t want to show up and it’s obvious to her and scary, but that it might be flattering that I’m trying something out, so that was that was a big piece of it."

Napier, Portman, Moore and Melton break down six key moments from "May December," including how their looks evolve over the course of the film and how the characters' performance change when they start to see themselves through Elizabeth's eyes.

Standing out at the Memorial Day party

Elizabeth stands in front of a dock holding a notepad and pen, wearing a purple dress and wide brim hat (Courtesy of Netflix)
Elizabeth stands in front of a dock holding a notepad and pen, wearing a purple dress and wide brim hat (Courtesy of Netflix)

Elizabeth may be a movie star, but her first scene in "May December," isn't necessarily glamorous. Still, it's clear from her understated, urban outfit — a black jacket from The Row, along with a T-shirt and jeans — that she's a fish out of water among the airy dresses of Savannah, Georgia.

"I spoke with Natalie (Portman), and we very quickly were like, 'Oh, this is an urban character.' Jane Birkin was a real touchstone for us in that kind of classic, cool uniform," Napier says. "Like you live in New York or you live in LA, it's kind of a uniform that you wear."

After dropping her things off at a hotel, Elizabeth then heads over to a Memorial Day get together at Gracie and Joe’s home, which is the first time she interacts with the pair.

Napier points out that while everyone else is wearing some element of red, white and blue for the holiday, Elizabeth arrives wearing a deep red dress and tan hat.

"They're having these subtle gestures as a nod to Memorial Day, so hers is red, but it's a very deep oxblood, aubergine, dark," Napier says. "Chic, but it's like her city gesture — to fit in as best she can."

Gracie and Joe's 'uniforms'

Joe stands on a deck grilling in a blue shirt  (François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix )
Joe stands on a deck grilling in a blue shirt (François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix )

Joe’s outfit at the party is emblematic of his psychological divide. On the inside, Napier says, he is a "young, stifled adolescent," but he's "trying to pretend to be a dad" on the outside.

And so, Napier says he's wearing his "dad uniform" at the party: "In the South, men have a uniform — a polo shirt and khaki shorts, khaki trousers, a buttoned down shirt. There’s a real uniform and he’s trying to play the part because there’s a lot of scandal surrounding him. He’s just trying to fit in."

Gracie's clothes — a white, flowing shirt — in the scene are just as telling. Napier says Moore was “really vocal and really clear and helpful about the performative femininity of her character," which comes through in her clothes.

"She's like a princess, she's in this ivory tower. And then there's this masculine young man who came to rescue her, so there's that femininity and that softness, and that brittle element to her," Napier says of Gracie. "That really set the tone for her being in those beautiful pastels, and for her be very precise and kind of calculated in how she is."

Moore tells TODAY.com more about Gracie's "expression of hyper femininity."

"She's someone who's really enmeshed this idea of the femininity of home, family, children, fragility, naivete and youth. She's almost childlike, in a sense — that's her presentation," Moore says. "Because that's the only way she's able to couch this decision she made where she really crossed a tremendous boundary."

Elizabeth's outfits evolve and go from L.A. to Savannah

Grace and Elizabeth standing in front of a flower arrangement  (François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix )
Grace and Elizabeth standing in front of a flower arrangement (François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix )

Napier explains that Elizabeth's outfits are urban and dark in the beginning of the movie, but get lighter as she spends more time in Savannah.

The turning point is the flower arranging class she attends with Gracie. "She goes wearing a black knit polo. Then she kind of starts getting lighter," Napier says.

The evolution has a practical explanation: Elizabeth only has so much space in her suitcase. The filmmakers imagined that she might have bought more items over the course of her week.

"We didn't want to have too many pairs of shoes because that's one thing to sort of limit when you're packing," Napier says. "And then what she could have actually bought when she starts getting softer throughout her week in Savannah."

Since Elizabeth is going to start filming the movie immediately after the visit, the gradual style change may also suggest she is becoming Gracie.

Making cake in matching dresses

Gracie and Elizabeth stand in front of water with hands on hips, wearing matching dresses  (Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix)
Gracie and Elizabeth stand in front of water with hands on hips, wearing matching dresses (Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix)

Napier says the scene where Gracie and Elizabeth make a pineapple upside down cake together is a nod to the 1964 film "The Pumpkin Eater," about an unhappy marriage crumbling under secrets.

Napier was reminded one scene in particular, where Anne Bancroft and Maggie Smith — playing a wife and the woman her husband is having an affair with — are in the kitchen together, wearing similar outfits and similar patterns.

"So I was like, 'We have to mimic that.' This is the perfect time," Napier says of the baking scene. "Julianne's in that little Laura Ashley dress with her apron, and then Natalie comes in with the same dress, but it's a button up, rayon, silky dress. It's a geometric pattern, so it's more urban."

It appears to be one of the first times Gracie notices Elizabeth's shifting outfits as well, Portman says.

"I love when I come over to learn how to bake the cake with her. (Napier) put me in this floral dress, and it's the first time that I really kind of dress like (Gracie)," Portman says. "I love the way it's written too, that Julianne's character says, 'Oh, you look so wonderful!' You know, she, of course, recognizes herself and is flattered."

Why Joe is wearing Abercrombie in the roof scene

May December (Netflix)
May December (Netflix)

At one point in the movie, Joe smokes a joint with his son on the roof — his first joint, a nod to his missed youth. What starts

"The scene on the roof," Napier says, is the scene where she had Joe "lean into his adolescence."

"He’s really getting internal and he’s kind of breaking down." Napier says. "We put him in a terrible Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt, and washed the f--- out of it, like, really got it brown and old, like it’s something that he had a long time — Joe’s like, 'This is my comfort outfit.' Plus his washed out jeans and his New Balances."

Melton tells TODAY.com he asked Todd Haynes, the film's director, for extra takes to film the scene, and ended up doing about 14 or 15 takes.

"It’s such a heartbreaking scene for Joe, and I learned that day that my job as the actor is to really tell the character’s story, not so much mine," Melton says. "I kind of had this idea where I thought the scene should have went, but I still think to this day, I still have one more take in me."

Gracie and Elizabeth mirror each other in the graduation scene

Gracie and Elizabeth stand facing each other wearing matching white shirts  (Courtesy of Netflix )
Gracie and Elizabeth stand facing each other wearing matching white shirts (Courtesy of Netflix )

Samy Burch, the film's screenwriter, envisioned Gracie and Elizabeth meeting at the twins' high school graduation ceremony as "two white knights," Napier says. "Like a duel."

"We knew they both had to be in white. Obviously Julianne's dress is much more feminine, softer and floaty, and then Natalie's much more architectural in its design," Napier says.

Napier describes the pair's confrontation, when Gracie tells Elizabeth: "Insecure people are very dangerous, aren't they? I'm secure. Make sure you put that in there."

"Then she walks away and then (the camera) just holds on Natalie, and you see her whole shell like, breaking apart. I mean, I've seen the film four times now, and I read the script, and I dressed them, and I was there. And every time, I'm still like, 'Ah! Oh f---, that scene,'" Napier says, speechless as she tries to continue describing it.

"May December" premieres on Netflix on Dec. 1.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com