In a darkened studio in Hollywood, "Down With Love" co-stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor are trotting on a treadmill in front of a special-effects screen. It's an ordinary sight in filmmaking, except that he's wearing a skinny, shiny blue suit and she's in pointy high heels, inch-long false eyelashes and an enormous lavender ostrich-feather cape tied with a shoulder-to-shoulder bow.
"Now look longingly in each other's eyes," commanded director Peyton Reed.
Romance? Sorry, no one on the set of the '60s sex-comedy spoof can take their eyes off Zellweger's hilarious pouf of a costume.
"She looks like a Muppet from that angle," quipped one crew member. True, but her outfit is part of a grand movie wardrobe that's so retro fabulous that it makes current fashion's latest embrace of '60s style look vague and uninspired.
Fashion for the sake of dramatic, head-turning fashion makes a comeback in "Down With Love," which opens in theaters today. The Fox Pictures 2000 production is a highly stylized quasi-spoof of the classic Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies that always had to-die-for clothes.
Costume designer Daniel Orlandi spent weeks absorbing the style essence of the time period. "I went through every Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, GQ and Esquire from 1962 to 1964," he said. At his Hollywood studio office, Orlandi pasted the results of that research into a huge collage of vintage fashion photos, fabric swatches and sketches.
If it weren't for the veracity of his documentation, his movie wardrobe might seem drawn from fantasy. Did women really ever wear huge net hats with their daytime suits? Did men really choose iridescent mohair for their jackets? Yes, and in Orlandi's hands, the fantasy just gets more elaborate.
Then again, no ordinary costumes would stand up to the outlandish story. Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, author of a controversial book, "Down With Love," that directs women to avoid love and instead embrace careers, empowerment and no-strings-attached sex. With the help of her editor, Vikki Hiller (played by Sarah Paulson), the book becomes an international bestseller in two weeks, and the duo challenge traditional notions of love and work, even though they're trussed up in some of the wickedest boy-teasing skirts ever sewn.
The movie lightheartedly examines feminism's roots, but it's really more interested in compressing modern style's origins into a tidy, colorful flashback. It was a time when women were flooding into the workplace, but not without backlash, to become what screenwriter Eve Ahlert called "pre-feminist feminists."
"They realized that the washer, the dryer and the fridge weren't making them as happy as they should be," she said.
The movie's idealized 1963 setting reflects the modern Space Age, freaky hippies, funky beatniks and even sexy stewardesses. Everything from suits to sofas is authentically rendered but then glossed with artificiality. Skirts are tight, colors bright and a lady's wardrobe is the stuff of Barbie-doll dreams.
Production designer Andrew Laws designed 55 mid-century modern sets that are the architectural equivalent of couture. "Everything generates out from what the lead actress is wearing," Laws said. The backdrops, while spectacular, have to complement the characters' ensembles. The tactic? Color.
What did it cost? "A bunch," said producer Dan Jinks as he retrieved a scrapbook that became the movie's stylistic blueprint. Flipping to the opening scene, he showed how Zellweger's pink-clad character injects color into the haze of urban grays and browns. Laws connected the style dots almost subliminally: He even matched the color of Barbara's sofa to her pink suit. There's eye candy in virtually every scene.
"These movies were very much fashion shows," said Ahlert, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dennis Drake. "Even the men were sexy in their suits." The screenwriters crafted their script to showcase the sets and the costumes. That allowed the lead actresses, at every opportunity, to dress and display themselves as if they were models on a runway. The act of taking a seat at a restaurant became an exercise in cape-flinging, glove-pointing drama.
In Orlandi's imagination, women 40 years ago prepared for every task while wearing matching hats, gloves, shoes and bags -- and in the movies, they did. Orlandi, a veteran of costume legend Bob Mackie's glamour factory, let loose with opulence. The women's wear is loaded with handsewn couture details, hats are blown into outrageous proportions, and the menswear is cut to be sleek and James Bond debonair.