‘Damsels in Distress’ Costumer Ciera Wells Talks Whit Stillman and Tablecloth Togas

Damsels in Distress

Photo: Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose, Carrie MacLemore as Heather, Greta Gerwig as Violet, and Analeigh Tipton as Lily.

What would happen if a quartet of fashion-loving coeds infiltrated the fratty scene at an East Coast College? That's the scenario that the upcoming film Damsels in Distress imagines, and it was costume designer Ciera Wells's assignment to make it spring to life.

Director Whit Stillman might be one of the most fashion-conscious auteurs working today. His attention to sartorial detail is legendary, from the preppy deb-wear of Metropolitan to Chloe Sevigny's clubbing outfits in The Last Days of Disco. Wells, whose background is in theater design, encountered Stillman when he cameo'd in a film she was costuming called The Imperialists Are Still Alive! "I met him very briefly that day," Wells recollects. "I heard that he was going to be making Damsels....I just contacted Whit directly. I told him I'd love to be involved and considered."

The film's core group of girls—played by Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore—has a '50's-influenced look that Stillman helped to concoct. "He was really attracted to Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly; that classic fitted-top-big-skirt look. We started really basing it in the '50's and kind of contemporizing that and creating a feeling of nostalgia. It felt just slightly removed from reality; nostalgic-feeling without being at all a period piece. Once we got to that point, it was about trying to find each girl's personality within that language.

"Each one of the actresses also brought something very different to the character," the designer explains. In some cases, that included pieces from their own wardrobes. When the film opens, Gerwig's character is reeling from a breakup with an oafish frat boy. Her rollercoaster-like character arc makes for a challenge, costume-wise. "When she goes into her tailspin, that was the only time she was allowed to wear pants," laughs Wells. "That came from Whit. You kind of see her lose her, I guess, her feminine confidence in skirts for a while. As she starts to gain confidence, we did add more color. She actually borrows more from Megalyn's character, who had a lot more bright colors, and then ends up with the brighter colors of the dance sequence."

Tipton, a former model, dug into her own closet for the role. "The things that she contributed were very real. She brought her beat-up Converse sneakers, and her most comfortable pair of jeans and a baggy sweater, things that made her feel really comfortable, which we kind of worked into the beginning of her character. Megalyn brought some of her vintage dresses that she really loved." For her part, MacLemore brought pieces that felt "Southern and flirty and innocent, which was kind of her energy and also the character's energy."

Just like real college roommates, the girls share clothing in the movie. "There are some sweaters that get passed back and forth and some shirts," Wells says, adding that Megalyn and Greta's characters share a dress. She also used jewelry as a through-line for each character. "Greta only had two sets of jewelry. Same with Megalyn; she had one bracelet that she wore, pretty much every single day."

The movie's dance numbers are clearly meant to evoke the MGM era. However, while she watched some of the era's movie musicals for research, she didn't draw too heavily from their spangled CinemaScope aesthetic. "I didn't want to go too far into that...there's a whole other language there. I didn't want to get too immersed in that and lose what we were trying to do."

Damsels in Distress

Photo: Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carrie MacLemore as Heather, Greta Gerwig as Violet and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose.

Designer Krista Blomberg made two dresses specially for the film, for Greta and Megalyn's characters. Explains Wells, "I think it kind of harks back to the old Hollywood days, when there would be a few key dresses by some famous designer [a la "gowns by Adrian.] I think [Stillman] was attracted to the romanticism of that."

"He definitely has a particular fashion consciousness," Wells says of the director. "I think the hardest part of my job was to take what was in his head, and then add my own voice and make it a reality....We couldn't talk about clothes. He had to see the clothes."

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the four primly-turned-out leads was the college's Greek-life element. "That was very much trial and error [so that] the frat boys felt the right mix of kind of preppy and slovenly. Just make them look like they smell bad." Wells laughs. One scene, which depicts a toga party gone horribly awry, involved 60 extras and required some spur-of-the-moment work. "That was one of the hardest days of my career in film," Wells says. "We had told them, 'If you have any bedsheets lying around, bring them, because we don't quite have enough for everybody. Nobody brought a sheet, of course. We had about 45 minutes to transform them into a toga party...We started using tablecloths from the catering company. It was total madness." The scene, of course, ended up being one of the film's standouts.

Damsels in Distress will be in theaters beginning April 6; it goes into wide release later in the month. And while Stillman tends to take unusually large pauses between movies, you can see Wells's work again soon: she's already working on a Christmas movie starring Paul Rudd. (Lucky girl.)