Joanna Johnston is an OG of Hollywood costume design. The showbiz veteran has worked on classics like Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and the Sixth Sense. The WWII film Allied was far from her first rodeo, but still, the whimsical yet realistic nature of the period piece stole Johnston's heart. At FIDM's Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibit, which showcases the 2017 Oscar nominee's work, she explains where she pulled inspiration from, making Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard's characters come to life, and the one element needed to thrive in such timeless fashion today.
Of course, there was an irresistible, Old Hollywood glam aspect of the film (out on Blu-ray Feb. 28), in which Pitt and Cotillard play spies who flee from Casablanca to occupied London in the early '40s. Although Johnston gave a contemporary twist to such an iconic period of fashion, she gave nod to those who came before her and provided inspiration.
"For Marion's character, I looked at quite a lot of French fashion plates, because she’s French. Now, Voyager, very obviously Casablanca," she says. "I really looked at it on the side and was completely blown away because it looks as good now," she explains. It became Johnston's mission to also create beautiful fashion which could transcend time. "You could wear what [the women] wore, you could wear those dresses into today, easy."
Even I, a frequent tomboy who owns maybe three pieces of jewelry, find something so captivating and stunning about the era's fashion. "This period, for women, is strong but incredibly feminine. It’s really beautiful," said the costume designer. That goes for men, too. "The men are also incredibly elegant, and it’s really strong on tailoring."
I could see how such ensembles would make one feel confident and powerful. According to Johnston, the key to channeling the classic period isn't about a specific fabric or print. "I suppose the key word is elegant," she said. "For both men and women. It’s an elegance, a groomed aspect of application of clothes. That’s the one note to capsule into something that could work for today and have a foot in the '40s."
There are two pieces of Cotillard's wardrobe that particularly stuck out to me: the beautiful green evening gown and the floral-printed robe. Both pieces, according to Johnston, could easily be translated into modern day. "You could wear that [dress] today to an awards show or something if you wanted to," she said. Same goes for the robe. "The warmth and color of these oranges, yellows, and zip of blue, I just absolutely loved it. I found it so fresh. You could wear that now easily."
It was important she held on to the Hollywood glam tradition, while also infusing modern nuances. "That was my broad stroke: Keeping it looking like it’s not wrapped up in a time warp, so it looks appealing to contemporary audiences." And of course, Pitt and Cotillard were totally game. How couldn't they be?
"They were both on other jobs when I showed them the original concepts, they were very happy with it, I then just ran with it," she said. The process was collaborative. "In the fitting room, everything happens, it’s a very sacred place. Tweaks and shifts, I change things and they have opinions. You go through that process and you come out with them in their final look on set," Johnston explained.
It seems like Johnston, Pitt, and Cotillard had as much fun playing dress up as I did living out the romanticism. Because she was right: such class and sophistication truly never go out of style or lose their power.