“It starts with the shoes” says April Napier, the costume designer behind Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. For each of the characters in Lady Bird, Napier created a wardrobe from the bottom up. “I try to think; what are all the things they have in their closet? And then they pull items out each day.”
It’s a delightfully down-to-earth approach, fitting for a film that feels grounded in a near-universal reality; a complex relationship between a high school senior and her mother. Lady Bird tells the story of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, a Sacramento teen whose dreams of attending college on the East Coast are thrown into jeopardy by her parents’ financial situation (and her own fairly average grades). Though the plot sounds simple, Gerwig leads her main character across vivid emotional stepping-stones; a deeply satisfying narrative arc that steers Saoirse Ronan’s Christine from teenage self-absorption to awareness, gratitude and self-actualisation. It’s a journey that required around 96 costume changes.
“Lady Bird has the freedom to pull from any era. She wears things from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s – it’s whatever she’s responding to or what’s resonating with her in that moment of her self-discovery.” Napier sees Lady Bird as coming, in part, from a punk rock mentality, so she looked to people like Kim Gordon, Patti Smith and Kathleen Hanna. “I also feel like there’s a little George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir there, women with a history of having strength.”
Gerwig’s reference points for the mood of the film were diverse, too, encompassing paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, the work of Joan Didion and the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup. She also gave her team personal photos and journals from her own high-school years.
“That was a great reference because you see people – like real people, not in magazines or films – just real people hanging out at a house and you think, yeah, that’s what Danny [one of Lady Bird’s love interests] wears; a pair of ill-fitting khakis and a puka shell necklace.” Napier winces. “It’s so painful, but that’s what it is!”
It’s especially in details like these that the costume design excels, bringing a kind of visceral nostalgia that feels authentic rather than saccharine. Laurie Metcalf, who play’s Lady Bird’s well-intentioned mother, but who nevertheless knuckles up against her daughter’s strong-willed ways, was dressed with a similarly attentive eye. “In [Metcalf’s] outfits we used some patterns and necklaces that are kind of loud, to give another layer of possibility. Who was Laurie before she started carrying the weight of supporting a family? It was really important to Greta that we give a back story to her, to know that she has a personality and hopes, desires and dreams underneath all that, too.” The tie-dyes and statement pieces Metcalf’s character wears when she’s off-duty contrast with her drab nurses scrubs. They hint at an inner life and ambition that – were she only to look a little closer – Lady Bird might recognise as similar to her own.
Napier came to costume design somewhat serendipitously. Finishing up an MFA in Art in Illinois, unsure of what to do next, the California native received a call from a friend. “She was like ‘why don’t you come to LA and be a stylist?’ I said, ‘what is that?’” The friend told Napier: “you go to thrift stores all day long and you make people in bands look cool”.
April was sold, and soon found herself working in music videos, dressing artists like Nine Inch Nails, Macy Gray, Lenny Kravitz and Radiohead. She’s carried this same openness throughout her career, leaving room for opportunity to find her. Paraphrasing a quote that resonates with her (“I think it was Truffaut”), she advises always leaving space for something – fate, kismet – to come in and surprise you, “because that’s where the magic happens”.
For her time on the Lady Bird set, this meant looking to their surroundings. When the crew began to prepare for the scenes of Lady Bird’s high school musical (a rendition of the Sondheim flop, Merrily We Roll Along), Napier and her team raided the costume cupboard of the school they were filming in.
“It’s not effortless at all because it’s so organised and specific, but you keep that effortless element in it. It has to feel real.” The same spirit applies to the film as a whole. “People are tired of this old, fake, huge Hollywood stuff. It’s time for an intimate, authentic story. People are hungry for it, you know? The whole world is such a mess right now, people are craving honesty.”
Lady Bird is in selected cinemas February 16 and nationwide February 23, 2018.