Lee Daniels’ The Butler (in theaters Aug. 16) is a fictionalized version of the story of White House butler Eugene Allen. For Ruth E. Carter, that meant designing period costumes for an independent film that spans more than 80 years — from a Virginia plantation in the 1920s, to the Civil Rights Era, to the election of Barack Obama — and boasts a cast of characters that includes some of the most important figures in U.S. history. Not to mention, working with the one and only Oprah.
“We did a lot of restoration and building,” says Carter, who earned Academy Award nominations for her work on 1992’s Malcolm X and 1997’s Amistad. “I had a full crew of seamstresses, a cutter fitter, a person who just did beading. [The wardrobe] came from so many different sources. We had very little time.” Carter’s wardrobe team had just a few months to create more than 250 looks for 95 characters, including the butler himself, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) — plus iconic first ladies like Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) — and fictional figures played by Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, and Alex Pettyfer. As for Oprah? “I wanted to make her one of those quintessential homemakers,” Carter explains. “Just as Jackie Kennedy was First Lady at the White House, Oprah’s character was the First Lady of the Gaines house and of her community. I tried to create an [equally] iconic persona for her.”
Although Carter insists that The Butler “is not a big, fancy movie that gives you fancy speeches and fancy people,” there is no shortage of tuxedos, beaded gowns, and other fancy clothes. Keep reading for more details on the film’s epic wardrobe.
EW: How did you go about researching the costumes in this film?
Ruth E. Carter: Because I knew I was doing presidents [and their wives], you can’t really play around with that. I went directly to some wonderful collections [like] a book that’s called Entertaining at the White House with Nancy Reagan. Mamie Eisenhower [played in the film by Melissa Leo] was the iconic June Cleaver of the late ’50s. She [represented] the view that women had of femininity, of charm, and grace. I went to historical research books to gain inspiration. I knew I had to get the presidents right and the research was available to me, but for [Cecil and Gloria's] story, the parts that Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey played, there was more digging that needed to be done to produce a look for what their lives looked like. There’s an archive online of… different collections of photographs of the lifestyles of people who lived in Washington, DC in the ’50s and the ’60s. It painted a picture for me of, “What was the life of the middle class in Washington, D.C. and how did that look in comparison to life at the White House?” Because Eugene Allen, who in our story is called Cecil Gaines, he actually bounces between those two worlds. “What do those two worlds look like?” It was wonderful to paint that picture. I was born in the ’60s, so my mom — and most African-American households — had a subscription to Ebony Magazine. It was the quintessential look book for families who wanted to see how other people lived. I scanned so many of those images because Oprah’s character is the Ebony woman. I found hairstyles and all kinds of things that I felt [were appropriate] for the woman who is married to someone who worked at the White House.
What was it working with Oprah and Forest Whitaker?
Forest is the consummate professional actor. He trusts the designers who’ve been hired to do the job. I shared with him the illustrations that I [created for his character], the tear sheets I compiled, and he liked it. He was very excited and very happy. Oprah, I sent in electronic files to her office, and the director [Lee Daniels] first called me back and said, “Ruth, you have no idea. She is in love.” Once I did get together with her for her fitting, she was in a great mood. I was nervous. I mean, this is Oprah. We all love watching Oprah. After five minutes of, “Wow, Oprah just walked into my fitting room!’ you go, ‘Okay, She’s not here to interview me, she’s here to be [transformed] into a character. Now it’s my time to shine and show her the things that I think will work.'” We had several fittings during the whole process. She was always enthusiastic.
Did Oprah take issue with any of the costume choices?
We talked about a request Lee Daniels had. He wanted Gloria to wear her hair in curlers under a scarf — those big plastic curlers with the pins — outside to the Greyhound bus station when she’s escorting her son as he goes to go off to college. She felt that a woman of her stature in her community would not ever be seen in hair curlers out in public… It took us forever to convince Lee. He would not back off the curlers! So I sent him a text one day and I said, “Did you want the first time we see Oprah in this film [to be] in curlers? Is that the image you want to present? I just want you to think about it.” Lee texted back, “Okay, no curlers.” I [was] driving and I had to pull over to the side of the road. I texted Oprah and I said, “Just in from Lee! NO CURLERS!” in all caps. She called me and said, “I just need to know how you did it. I mean, we tried to convince him every which way, but he wouldn’t budge. What did you say exactly?”
Was there a particular costume or prop that helped Forest get into character?
In the ’50s, Cecil Gaines wore this hat called “The Barcelona.” It was a specific hat that the real [butler] Eugene Allen wore. I had several of them in different colors. [When] I gave him that hat, he felt like he had transformed. It’s the properties of clothing that give actors comfort. It’s like a safety blanket.
What was it like collaborating with Lee Daniels?
His take on everything he does is from a very raw sense of realism… Lee [might] say, “Take that wig off. What does your hair look like underneath that wig… Ah, there it is. That’s what this [character] should look like.” If the shoes are dirty, that’s perfect. Anything that looks like it’s been “designed” is not the aesthetic of the film. I loved working with Lee. I adore him. He’s such a visionary. He’s really good at communicating and I love that I can make him laugh, because sometimes we just need to laugh. Whether we’re right or wrong, we just need to laugh it out. That’s a nice connection, you know?
What was it like the first time you two met?
I [had] set up the conference room in the office in Louisiana [where we filmed] with mannequins in tuxedo tails and restaurant uniforms. I also had tripods set up with maybe 12 to 15 very large presentation boards full of research and illustrations for each character… walking us through the story. This was the first time I would be working with him and I wanted to show him my road map, so if there was anything he saw along the way that I should be concerned about, he could see if it was the wrong or right direction at a glance. He was location scouting, so I couldn’t see him right away, but the room was set up. I had moved the conference table over to one side and had transformed the room into a costume showroom. Lee walked in [wearing] his pajamas because, you know, he wore pajamas every day like Hugh Hefner. Then he walked back out and he said, “Tom [who is his assistant] go get lunch for me and Ruth from that place that I love!” While we waited for the food to arrive, he went through the costume presentation and was super excited. [Then] Tom returned with a tray of neck bones. We sat there and we ate these neck bones with our fingers. That kickstarted a very collaborative and visually stimulating relationship between Lee and I.
How did working with Spike Lee for so many years prepare you for working with Lee Daniels?
They’re very different. I don’t think there was any preparation. There are films that are studio pictures and you have lots of producers who want to be involved. Or directors who don’t really have meetings about the clothes. They let the producer have the meeting about the clothes and they present it to the director. There’s all those kinds of degrees of separation in other films. The similarities between Spike Lee and Lee Daniels is that they are the boss. You go to the boss with your ideas and you have to be able to communicate very clearly. You can’t be afraid. There it is. They’re similar in that you can’t be afraid to let them know what you think. If you don’t think something works, you’ve got to tell them.
What was the most challenging part of creating the film’s wardrobe?
The most challenge part of creating the wardrobe was working during production. [I would] take a look at that call sheet and [it might] say, “The first scene is 1960 JFK. The second two scenes are 1950 Cecil Gaines. The last scene of the day is sharecroppers in 1920.” You go, “Listen guys, I’m not I Dream of Genie. I’m not folding my arms and shaking my head and all this stuff happens.” We can’t always dictate what they shoot because it’s hard for us, but we can let them know, “This is how much time it will take to make the ’50s turn into the ’60s.”
Which character transformation did you find was the hardest to pull off?
The first person who comes to mind is John Cusack. He plays Vice President Nixon, the younger Nixon, and then he plays President Nixon. The research I had shows him in these big, double-breasted 1950s suits, sort of like Ricky Ricardo. Then later on in the ’70s, things changed. He’s a little bit older, more into a ’70s look with wider lapels and three-piece suits. If we saw a photograph that we believed in, I painstakingly went through hundreds of ties to find the same stripe that is depicted in the picture. Whether it was a button down or a spread collar, or if the lapel was wide or narrow, I paid attention to those details so that the actors would feel like [their characters]. For John Cusack, he was the young Nixon and the old Nixon. That was challenging because actors of his caliber are used to having more preparation time and being a lot more involved in the films. [The actors playing historical figures] are only in the film for a few scenes. They were there no more than a week. They depended on me in that, when they walked in, I would have all the research necessary to present the visual side. John had already read autobiographies, he had done a lot of pre-work himself. It was almost like a test that I would be up to his level.
Minka Kelly plays First Lady and fashion icon Jackie Kennedy. How did you go about creating her look?
I had a book called Jackie Kennedy the White House Years. There would be a picture of Jackie wearing an item and then the next page would have a collector’s photograph of the item on a mannequin with a close up of the beading. Sitting down with Minka and going through these photographs was thrilling. First of all, we couldn’t get over how much she favors the real Jackie Kennedy. Secondly, her size was perfect for the era. She could [pull] it off, which was wonderful. Sometimes you get actors who are great actors, but the physical body does not match the real person they’re playing. I had a couple of racks of items that were similar to the things that were in that book. We tried on all those items at my house [in Los Angeles]. Minka came by and I had the dressmakers and we tried on all of these looks just to get a basic pattern of what worked on her body type. I couldn’t make [the dress I had in mind] because the scene is so short… I had to juggle those decisions. Which things do I make? It was more important to make more for Oprah because most things that have survived and have been collected [by vintage stores] aren’t above a size 4 or a 6. I had to make a lot of the things that Oprah wore so that she would definitely have what she needed.
How did fashion change over the many decades of this film?
We think of fashion in terms of finite definition. “This is what the ’60s looked like, this is what the ’70s looked like, this is what the ’80s looked like.” We can all kind of picture it. The ’60s is Mad Men, the ’70s is bell bottoms, we have these hints of what these eras mean to us, but what we don’t understand are the transitions. A lot of the presidents worked during [style] transitions. My challenge was to really define the transitions and say, “The pants could be narrower, but not as narrow as when we see JFK,” and “When we see Lyndon B. Johnson [Liev Schreiber], since it’s later, we’ll do more classic, late ’60s because we’re transitioning into Nixon, which is the ’70s.” Even though [with] the ’70s, people think of wide lapels and bell bottoms, in the White House they were classic. So what was the classic businessman’s lapel? It did have a little flare and it was a little wider, but it wasn’t trendy. I had to know all of those things to [create] a very specific, transitional time as well as a specific place.
For more on the costumes of Lee Daniel’s The Butler, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands today.