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Explorations in Color

December 24, 1993|BETTY GOODWIN

The Movie: "Heaven and Earth."

The Setup: It's the saga of a young Vietnamese woman, Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le, pictured), including her hardships during the Vietnam War, her marriage to Sgt. Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones, pictured) and her adjustment to life in Southern California.

The Costume Designer: Ha Nguyen, a Saigon-born designer who fled Vietnam in 1975. Her credits include "Robocop 3" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3."

The Look: For centuries, Vietnamese farmers have worn--and still wear-- non la, cone-shaped hats made of leaves, and simple muslin shirts and drawstring pants. The very poor always wore black or brown. But early in the film, before the war escalates, a bit of embellishment occurs: To show the warmth and happiness of the villagers, the shirts are crimson, sand, royal blue, rust, mocha and brown, while Le Ly's mother (Joan Chen) wears small floral prints. Clothes in such colors and patterns existed, Nguyen says, but were worn only on special occasions.

After the outbreak of war, the colors of the shirts get darker and blue is absent entirely. (In Vietnam, blue was traditionally associated with hope.)

By the late '60s, when Le Ly leaves her village and finds work in Da Nang as a cocktail waitress, she starts to wear the traditional Vietnamese high-collared dress (always worn over pants) known as ao dai, which is still worn at least part of the time by most women, regardless of their social standing.

As her relationship with Butler evolves, so does Le Ly's fashion sense. She starts to wear Western-style mini-dresses and very big hair. As for Butler, when he's not wearing his Army fatigues, he's in Hawaiian shirts.

Quoted: "The first time we see Le Ly in America, she wears a bright turquoise ao dai so you can really see that this girl looks lost in America. When I was a refugee, I did pretty much the same thing. When you come to a Western country, you try to hold on to your culture," Nguyen says.

Inspiration: Nguyen consulted news footage, Life and Time magazines, photo books, and traveled to Da Nang, Hanoi and Ky La, a rice farming village in central Vietnam, where clothing has hardly changed.

Sources: Non la were purchased in Vietnam. Muslin for the working-peasant clothes also came from Vietnam and was dyed and sewn at the film's production facility in Thailand. Dress silks were from Thailand.

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