Frock Flicks Guide to Costume Designer Ann Roth

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Ann Roth might not be a common name among frock flick fans, but this costume designer has been working in Hollywood and on Broadway for decades. Whether creating office looks for 9 to 5 (1980) and Working Girl (1988), dressing drag queens in The Birdcage (1996), or making memories with Mamma Mia! (2008), she’s always designing real clothes for real characters, not fantasy or fashion. As she told Variety, from the start of her career: “I was not attracted to doing modern clothes for movie stars and making them look like who they are.” She specializes in creating clothes that help the actor express their part, as opposed to making a big, flashy statement with the costumes themselves. Roth examines the character’s background before designing the clothes, explaining in a Deadline interview:

“You have to see each character and figure out where they came from. Where did they grow up, if they went to parochial school, if they left parochial school, if they ran away and joined the circus. Where did that jacket come from? Who made it? Was it left it in a bar three years ago and he took it? It’s that kind of imagination, and when you get the actor to work with you, that’s really fun. If the shirt has been washed in the sink with lye soap, if just the collar is washed, if the guy wants to wash it but he falls asleep every night and the shirt’s on the floor, what does it look like and how many shirts does he have? Those are the questions you ask yourself.”

She’s up for the Best Costume Design Oscar this year for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and she’s already won a BAFTA and Costume Designers Guild Award for this film. It’s about time we recognized her historical costume prowess!

 

 

The Day of the Locust (1975)

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

Set in 1930s Hollywood, vintage undies set the tone right from the credits.

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

There’s a movie-within-a-movie going on, so some of the costumes are pretty OTT.

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

But a lot are also perfectly fab ’30s sportswear.

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

That skinny red belt is *chef’s kiss.*

In an interview with LiveDesign, Roth talked about using authentic garments onscreen and in research:

“Let me tell you something: I am the first girl in this business to use real period clothes. I’ve done this for a long time, because I come from this coast [East] and they come from that coast [West]. When they did ‘The Sting,’ I was doing ‘The Day of the Locust.’ While I had some real stuff I had brought from here, or worked out of museums, having clothes copied, they would just go into the stockroom and pull things out.”

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

Some daytime ’30s glam.

Ann Roth - The Day of the Locust (1975)

Promo pic shows the great wide-leg pants & hooded robe.

 

 

Mandingo (1975)

Ann Roth - Mandingo (1975)

Supposedly this was one of Tarantino’s inspirations for Django Unchained.

 

 

Valley Forge (1975)

Ann Roth - Valley Forge (1975)

TV movie about the American Revolution — just being a completionist when possible.

 

 

The Best of Families (1977)

Ann Roth - The Best of Families (1977)

A TV miniseries about several families in the late 19th century.

Ann Roth - The Best of Families (1977)

 

 

The Royal Family (1977)

Ann Roth - The Royal Family (1977)

TV version of a play & nothing to do with the British royals.

Ann Roth - The Royal Family (1977)

Set in the 1910s – 1920s.

 

 

Places in the Heart (1984)

Ann Roth - Places in the Heart (1984)

Set in rural 1930s Texas, this film earned Ann Roth her first Oscar nomination.

Ann Roth - Places in the Heart (1984)

Even though Sally Field’s character is poor, she still wears a hat!

Ann Roth - Places in the Heart (1984)

Period prints & trims.

Ann Roth - Places in the Heart (1984)

One dramatic dress for a key scene.

 

 

Maxie (1985)

Ann Roth - Maxie (1985)

A very silly film about at 1920s ghost (Glenn Close) haunting a modern couple. I guess if she’s a ghost this Kleenex dress makes more sense?

Ann Roth - Maxie (1985)

A very glam ghost, sure.

Ann Roth - Maxie (1985)

Something about the ghost character wanting to be a movie star, thus the ’20s-style Egyptian costume, which is a great riff on that period.

 

 

Sweet Dreams (1985)

Ann Roth - Sweet Dreams (1985)

I adore Patsy Cline, but I wanted this biopic to be more about her music career & less about her marriage to Charlie Dick (played by Ed Harris).

Ann Roth - Sweet Dreams (1985)

Still, Jessica Lange did a good job, & she really looks the part.

Ann Roth - Sweet Dreams (1985) Ann Roth - Sweet Dreams (1985)
Ann Roth - Sweet Dreams (1985)

Some of the costumes Ann Roth designed are on display at the Patsy Cline Museum.

 

Biloxi Blues (1988)

Ann Roth - Biloxi Blues (1988)

World War II, so mostly uniforms, but hey, here’s one dress!

 

 

The Mambo Kings (1992)

Ann Roth - The Mambo Kings (1992)

No lie, I love men in ruffles. Especially if one of them is Antonio Banderas, rrow.

Ann Roth - The Mambo Kings (1992) Ann Roth - The Mambo Kings (1992)

 

 

The English Patient (1996)

Ann Roth - The English Patient (1996)

Ann Roth won a Best Costume Oscar for this film.

Ann Roth - The English Patient (1996)

If we’re going to have WWII uniforms, at least Juliette Binoche is wearing one.

The English Patient (1996)

The one formal scene with That Dress.

The English Patient (1996)

On display at the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen Exhibit.

The English Patient (1996)

Detail photos by Maija Hallikas-Manninen.

The English Patient (1996)

More photos in our guest post.

 

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Ann Roth - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Roth’s longtime assistant Gary Jones co-designed this film with her, & they were nominated for an Oscar.

Ann Roth - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

This coat was made at Terelli’s in Rome, but several vintage pieces were used as well — Ann Roth has a large collection of period clothes & a wide network of vintage connections.

Ann Roth - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

In an interview with LiveDesign, Roth said of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character:

“She’s a girl who comes from a good family, and goes to Europe to write. She hangs out in her pajamas and her skirts, and she has a bikini on underneath her skirt and blouse when she goes to town. She doesn’t buy her own clothes, they are her parents’ purchases she had from school. I also wanted to reflect that in the jewelry, which might have been her Aunt Mary’s, and God knows where Aunt Mary got it.”

Ann Roth - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) Ann Roth - The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

 

 

The Hours (2002)

Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002)

According to The New York Times, in preproduction for The Hours:

“Ms. Roth handed Ms. Kidman a muslin dress and a hat, and then, staring at her perfect camera-ready nose, she said, ”We have to do something about your face.'”

And that’s how Nicole Kidman came to wear a prosthetic nose as Virginia Woolf.

Ann Roth - The Hours (2002)
Ann Roth - The Hours (2002)

Ann Roth was nominated for another Oscar for this film, where she designed clothes from the 1920s, 1950s, & modern day.

Ann Roth - The Hours (2002)

 

 

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain (2003)

Roth co-designed this film with Carlo Poggioli.

Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain (2003)

According to The New York Times, Ann Roth learned that the fabric of the North Carolina 25th Infantry was called “butternut” because it was dyed with butternut tree bark:

“So she tracked down someone named Pat Cline in Pennsylvania, who knew exactly how to dye the thread to look authentic. Ms. Roth had the fabric woven and printed in Montana, dyed and aged in Rome, and shipped to Romania, where the filming took place.”

Ann Roth - Cold Mountain (2003)

 

 

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet in post-WWII Germany.

 

 

Julie & Julia (2009)

Ann Roth - Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep perfectly portrays Julia Child in the 1950s.

Ann Roth and Meryl Streep have worked together on many films and call each other friends. In the L.A. Times, Streep said of Roth:

“I really think she is the unsung heroine of my career. She’s really done a lot for me, and for the women I have portrayed. She has drawn fully half of them.”

 

 

Mildred Pierce (2011)

2011 Mildred Pierce

Ann Roth was nominated for the Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special Emmy, along with her assistant costume designers Michelle Matland & Patrick Wiley.

Ann Roth - Mildred Pierce (2011)

Set in 1931, this miniseries has about 66 costume changes for Kate Winslet as the main character.

Ann Roth - Mildred Pierce (2011)

She goes from housedresses & simple daywear.

Ann Roth - Mildred Pierce (2011)

To suits & glamorous gowns, as does her daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood).

While comparisons might be made to Joan Crawford’s 1945 film of the same name, in Harper’s Bazaar, Ann Roth said that wasn’t an influence on her costume designs:

“I would never look at movies for my work. I would look at real clothes from the period and photographs from the period. One doesn’t look at other people’s work.”

 

 

The Post (2017)

Ann Roth - The Post (2017)

Most of the film’s costumes are like this, so Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham stands out.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Ann Roth talked about how she approached Streep’s character for this film:

“I’m a huge researcher to the point where I have to say it’s too much. And so I read Katharine Graham’s book and I had met her a few times, and had dinner at Ben Bradlee’s house a few times over the years. I know where she went to school and what kind of life she had, and I know that when she was a young woman she probably went to Garfinckels (Washington D.C’s now-defunct fashion arbiter) and there was a lady there who would help her. I don’t think until after her husband died did she get into going up to New York, getting more social and she got hooked on Halston. But still, it wasn’t the day when somebody said, ‘what are you wearing?’ In those days, nice women did not talk about the labels in their dresses.”

Ann Roth - The Post (2017)

The pivotal ‘retirement’ caftan.

Roth said of the caftan:

“That was a nice fabric. I live in New York on Lexington Avenue and right up the street are all the great Indian shops, but I finally found that fabric in Edison, N.J. The caftan wasn’t based on real life, it’s just what I decided. We also found a great six-ply silk Gucci fabric for one of the dresses she wears; it’s hard to find good silks nowadays.”

 

 

The Seagull (2018)

The Seagull (2018)

Based on a Chekhov play & set around 1900.

Ann Roth - The Seagull (2018) Ann Roth - The Seagull (2018)

 

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

Speaking to Netflix Queue, Ann Roth said:

“I know one thing was big for the ladies in the period we’re talking about. They had to look good. There was a lot of washing and ironing and pressing. And for the guys, it was very important that they had a clean white shirt and their shoes were shined. When they walked into the tent or the theater, they were showbiz.”

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

Viola Davis had to wear extensive padding and gain weight for this role, which Ann Roth had to work with to design her gowns:

“When Viola walked into the fitting room, I can’t say it wasn’t tense. It’s a difficult thing, to think of yourself acting and singing in a rubber suit for two months. We put the suit on, I slid a dress of the period over her body, and that did it. When she looked in the mirror, she started to see someone else. And that is the secret to being free to be someone else.”

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

Roth found period-appropriate coins to make Ma Rainey’s signature necklace of gold-dollar coins, which is briefly seen early in the film:

“If you go to the costume rental house and say, ‘Yeah, that looks like the pictures,’ it’s not the same. I’m forever searching. I do not do costumes over the internet. I have to find them for myself. That’s being a costume designer.”

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

 

 

What’s your favorite of Ann Roth’s historical costume movie designs?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

11 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    If I had to single out one Ann Roth Frock Flick that is my favourite, I couldn’t be she covers the gamut of several eras. But I can say The English Patient, MA Ramey, Rainey’s Black Bottom, Cold Mountain and Julia and Julia are favourites.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I’m rooting for her to win the Oscar this year. ‘Emma’ was very pretty & I did love the designs (& I usually don’t like Regency that much), but Ma Rainey was more of a challenge & showed more depth, IMO.

      Reply
  2. JustaTech

    Oh, what a serendipitous post! I was just thinking about “Places in the Heart” the other day, but couldn’t remember the title or any of the actors (I think I saw it once in Sunday School ages ago).
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Thanks! I find them satisfying to do, I learn about a lot of different movies (which unfortunately I can’t always track down, but it’s still fun).

      Reply
  3. Orian Hutton

    How can I pick a favourite. This is a costume designer who really seems able to dress from the period and go into all the wonderful details. Loved this. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. SarahV

    As much as Gwyneth Paltrow ranks highly as she does on my Irrational Hate List, she was fucking fabulous in Ripley. So chic and glamorous!

    I have never despised a character as much as a despised Vida in Mildred Pierce, although she was divinely dressed.

    That Patsy Cline one looks fun. I am sucker for a young Ed Harris, and Jessica Lange just adds value to anything.

    Reply
  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    I love this woman’s work….even though I never heard of her before. For every one of the movies that I’d seen I just remembered thinking that the whole look of those films was perfect. One of my all-time favorite movies is The English Patient, so I gotta go with that one. But The Talented Mr. Ripley was excellent as well. And P.S. Let’s not discount Armand Assante’s hotness in The Mambo Kings!!

    Reply
  6. Emily

    I adore adore ADORE Ann Roth ever since I saw her costumes in The Hours (one of my favorites movies). She is just so spot on and fab.

    Reply

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