"Lee Daniels' The Butler" spans four decades and depicts a spectrum of characters that could make any costume designer's head spin: from a rural African American field worker (as portrayed by Mariah Carey) to a boozy-yet-stylish '50s lady (Oprah Winfrey — whose character traverses all of the film's decades as the wife of longtime White House butler Cecil Gaines) to iconic first ladies including Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) and Jacqueline Kennedy (Minka Kelly).
From Fonda to Reagan
In the film, 75-year-old Fonda is in close replicas to the real clothing of '80s-era first lady Mrs. Reagan. "She loved red," Ruth Carter, costume designer for "The Butler," told Yahoo! Movies of Reagan. "A very vibrant tomato red — coined as 'Reagan Red,'" said Carter, who mimicked the designs of Reagan's favorite designers, including Bill Blass. Carter even replicated a gown Regan wore to a state dinner.
It's not only the clothes, but Fonda's hair — which was ironically already in the right cut to play Reagan — and her makeup that made her look convincing as the former first lady.
Fonda managed to avoid a wardrobe catastrophe, Carter recalled, on her first day of filming: One of her costumes went missing — and she was only scheduled to shoot for a few short days. "I was walking on pins and needles." But Fonda made it work, swapping a costume intended for another scene while she waited for the missing outfit to arrive (and it did, in a frantic move by Carter to fly it in).
Click through for more on Winfrey and Kelly's "Butler" transformations:
In order for Minka Kelly to pull it off as the stylish Kennedy-era first lady, Carter new she had to pay attention to detail. "My main focus was to make sure the pink Chanel suit she wears when the [JFK] assassination happens is perfect," said Carter. "Of course we want Jackie Kennedy's look to be as iconic as it was in real life."
Carter also painstakingly replicated looks by one of Mrs. Kennedy's favorite designers, Oleg Cassini. And that pillbox hat was a must. "The scene where the Kennedy's greet the Butlers, [Kelly] is wearing the pillbox hat — which is real vintage." But Carter made a Cassini-inspired coat to go with it.
Carter also carefully replicated a famous dress Mrs. Kennedy wore to a performance by famed cellist and conductor Pablo Casals in 1961. "It's highly photographed," she said, explaining that she did an inordinate amount of research to get that yellow beaded dress right — even thought it's worn by Kelly in one very short scene.
Fun, But Not Always Fashionable
Winfrey does play a historical figure, but not one so well known that the costumes had to be an exact match (as with Fonda and Kelly). Carter dressed her in '50s-era garb all the way through to a tacky '80s tracksuit. "That was Oprah's idea! … she said, 'I want to wear an '80s tracksuit, and I want a really really ugly one.'" (Oprah is seen wearing it here, standing next to Carter.)
Carter worked quite a lot with Winfrey, who had far more scenes than both Fonda and Kelly combined. "I had a great collection of things waiting for her," Carter said, characterizing Winfrey as very easy to work with. "She was very humble. …She's very trusting." Carter also admitted to being star struck the first time she met Winfrey. "'Wow,' I said… I also said 'wow' to Jane Fonda … and Robin Williams … and Alan Rickman," she said of "The Butler"'s impressive ensemble cast.
The most complicated costumes — for historic icons in the Kennedy, Reagan, and Eisenhower administrations — all happened during the last three weeks of filming. "[In this film] I went through sharecroppers and Civil Rights — the '60s — and then at the very end I had the biggest challenges of the whole movie."
Our pillbox hat goes off to you, Ms. Carter!
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