When crafting outfits for movies, the primary goal is to elevate the character, make their existence believable, and to make the clothing a part of a character’s persona rather than separate to it.
That’s the simulated reality Hollywood costume designer Kym Barrett has dedicated the last two decades to honing, which is why she tends not to be at the forefront of a movie’s hype, no matter how memorable and iconic her designs are. But while you might not know her name, you’ve definitely seen her work.
Since 1996, the Australian designer has worked on Baz Luhrmann’s Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Romeo + Juliet, The Matrix franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Nice Guys, The Shallows, and Aquaman, to name just a few.
A psychological horror, Us tells the story of a family terrorized by their own doppelgängers. As you can see from the trailer, the film delivers an epic dose of harrowing mindfuckery, diving further into personal trauma and societal issues than you likely want to go. Which is why it looks to be a must-see of 2019.
We sat down with Barrett to discuss how wardrobe choices help set the tone in horror films and how she teased narrative cues into the outfits of Us‘ characters, as well as discussing the resurgence of Matrix-inspired trends and the story behind DiCaprio’s Hawaiian shirt in Romeo + Juliet.
Can you explain the concept behind the wardrobe in Us, specifically how you focused on ideas around contrast and duality?
I should start by talking about the broad scope of the design. I think part of the horror in the situation is the idea that anything can happen to anyone at any given time. It’s important that we believe that the characters are just like us. It’s a study in what happens when you confront these kinds of dualities.
I worked with Ruth De Jong, the production designer, and of course with lighting. I wanted there to be a sense that light emerges from the darkness, and recedes into the darkness, like a kind of a heartbeat. A story heartbeat. [So] there’s a balance, a yin and yang between light and shade.
From what we’ve seen in the trailers, there are quite a few narrative nods in the outfits: white rabbit prints, Howard University sweaters, the Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt, the tuxedo top. Do you purposefully tease plot lines through the clothing?
Yeah, I like to put a little spell into the clothes just so people notice some of the things that other people don’t notice. But it’s a very subconscious narrative and it’s hard because you haven’t seen the movie yet. There are plenty of references, not just from the costumes but throughout the whole movie that make it a kind of jukebox.
How does wardrobe help set the tone in horror movies?
Well, this is my first horror movie, so it was kind of a different approach for me. My job is to help the actors create character, and you really shouldn’t be noticing the costumes that much as you go through the story. We don’t want to bang anyone over the head about anything, so I think it’s the anticipation and the mystery of things you don’t know and you won’t know until you finish the movie.
How do you feel about the resurrection of The Matrix-inspired fashion, such as long black leather coats and tiny sunglasses? Or rather, how do you feel about a look you created 20 years ago still being an inspiration for trends today?
I love it that people still can connect to it. I think that part of it, too, is that the movie still resonates. The characters were from a really diverse group of cultures and they tapped into a whole other kind of world that ventured into machines taking over and the resistance. I think now that’s resonating because that’s what’s happening now. I think subconsciously that’s why people also maybe connect to it now.
The story is universal and it’s a question that people have always asked. Is this all there is? Is there another reality? Is there another realm? I think that’s kind of an ancient set of questions that were framed into a more modern context and storyline. The references that I put into The Matrix were really akin to those things.
Neo’s cape coat is always a good example. It’s very similar to an ancient Chinese robe and it’s also similar to a Catholic priest’s capping. And because Keanu [Reeves] looks great in it, and could move in it, and can fight in it, so therefore it gets its own identity as a sort of fashion iconography of that time.
Were there symbolic references in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo + Juliet shirt, too?
Well, I think that you [need to] look at these other guys in Hawaiian shirts, too. Leonardo’s, in a sense, is referencing flowers at the funeral. The hope that he carries when he’s in the desert, where there’s nothing — nothing green, nothing growing — it’s a symbol [of] something better. Whereas the other guys had violence and guns mixed in [to the design].
Did you get the fabric specially made for those shirts?
Yeah, we designed them. I had wonderful artists in Mexico City, which is where we shot much of the film, hand-painting. In that time, there were police on the sidewalk with machine guns and bulletproof vests. You walk through the streets and there will be a really, really rich house, and then across the street, there will be some people crouching in the corner but they’re drawing a beautiful chalk flower bouquet on the pavement with candles around it.
One of the things I really love about my job is that it’s rare that I work in LA. I’m in different countries with different cultural, artistic talents. So before I finalize any design, I try to really mine the people around me and ask them to be a part of the creation process. I think that if you didn’t know I was in Mexico City, you’d still feel it.
Us stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss, and is set to land in theaters March 22.