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Black Swan: Interview with Costume Designer Amy Westcott

by Emilia & Linda on October 12, 2010

Darren Aronofsky’s new psychological thriller Black Swan centers around the world of New York City Ballet and their opening production of Swan Lake, where two rival ballerinas – the ideal White Swan, Nina, and the seductive Black Swan, Lily – develop a twisted relationship.

One of the challenges for Aronofsky collaborator Amy Westcott was to create highly individual looks while keeping the movie’s costumes true to the ballet world. Costume designers play an important role in feature films, they set the mood, add realism to the storyline and give it personality. Amy brought in ballerinas from ABT and NYCB as consultants to assist in her research, which also included observing the dancers; what they wear for practice and securing collaborations with high-end labels Rodarte and Yumiko (NB: lookout for an exclusive Yumiko giveaway at the bottom of this feature).

Black Swan is part of the London Film Festival later this month and ahead of its wide release, Amy talked to us about working with Darren and recreating ballerinas on film:

TBB: How closely did you collaborate with Darren in Black Swan and how does he work? Does he give you a concept, ideas?

Amy: Darren is very hands on, he really likes to see what’s going on and the motivation behind it, the “whys”. By the time we start research, he has already been there, he knows what’s going on. The process is dictated by four people: Darren, Matthew Libatique [Cinematographer], Thérèse DePrez [Production Designer] and I. We all have a lot of creative talks together, getting different inspirations and pictures, talk about ideas and where we are going. After we sit down a few times, we keep on sending each other emails and different inspirations not necessarily directly related to your line of expertise…like say costumes. Even if something doesn’t have to do with costumes, it doesn’t matter, it will feed the inspiration that we all share and then we sit down once a week.

We have a process of discovery about the world we’re working with, like I might say I found out something while watching classes that ABT or, you bring certain things to the table, knowledge that you’ve collected. The four of us do that and it’s really exciting because you are coming at it from four sides: four different brains with different perspectives. For instance my view was more on the details and the things that I learnt from classes and talking to people, slipping around, while Thérèse was looking at things in a big scale, the ballerinas as a whole landscape.

TBB: When we saw that Darren was going to make a movie about the ballet world, we were thrilled. He digs so deep into his stories and pays attention to the smallest details…

Amy: That is the thing about him, he dives into the world…the exterior face of ballet, we are in there…and that was the great thing about the Wrestler as well, we had to dive in after him and know the details, which is really part of the fun of it. You have to get it right or you will be facing the uproar of so many people who know the business. People who will be looking closely at these details.

TBB: How long did that process take, putting together all these concepts, prepping until you conceptualize the work?

Amy: I started research about 3 months before we started putting things together. You peek your head into the business, in that world, for a long time before you structure things. The process is very different from that of a contemporary film where you can just jump in, because your head has been in contemporary mode for a long time. Here you need to know what you are talking about, you have to know before you start constructing things or start meeting with the actors.

TBB: Who did you reach out to for information on the ballet world?

Amy: I had a lot of different sources in NY, a hotbed of information when it comes to ballet. The first part of my research was books and films. Looking at films and seeing different documentaries to get a feel for it. They were not necessarily ballet films, they were more for colour or feeling, just to get the overall mood. For instance The Piano Teacher which had the same feeling, the desire of being great and being crushed by your talent. Things that had to do with our lead characters’ moods and feelings, so we would apply different inspirations in movies to our film and we would figure out what colour would come in then. And a lot of my research came from talking to ballerinas and going to City Ballet and they were so helpful.

Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied in a scene from Black Swan. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight ©

TBB: Which ballerinas did you talk to?

Amy: There were a few ballerinas, like Megan Fairchild at NYCB and two ABT ballerinas in particular, Jackie Reyes and Isabella Boylston, who sat down and gave me information and answered my questions, even if I had a mundane question about, say, “where their socks would go” and “why they wore things in a certain way”. It was very instructive to have consultant ballerinas on board.

TBB: How much of your time was spent on researching the dance costumes – was this the most laborious part of the process?

Amy: It was very important for me to make the everyday dancing realistic. To show the girls that are going to class, and making sure that they have the right layers at the right time, and they put the things on and in a way that read individualism as opposed as what people would think a ballerina would wear. I wouldn’t say it was laborious, I would say it was one of the most fun parts of my job; figuring out what’s right by talking to the girls and sitting in classes at City Ballet and ABT. I would sit by myself in the corner and watch them. I watched them take off what layers and I would take notes and notes, copious notes on the whole process, and make sketches. Diving into a world like that couldn’t be more fun. We went to various ballets, the opening night for City Ballet, and it was just fascinating to see, to have the opportunity to see how people live differently.

TBB: What would you say were your biggest challenges?

Amy: It was a challenge to keep everything as realistic as possible and I’ll tell you why. We worked with so many actual ballerinas that people are watching how we dressed them, so if there was a false move from our part, my part, it was detected right away. It was a very tough audience because they could sniff out a fake. So the challenge was making sure I had the information, making sure if I’d made a call, that it was right.

TBB: Were you able to draw from your experience in Darren’s previous movie The Wrestler?

Amy: Absolutely, and it is so similar in that way. Working with so many wrestlers, and they would say to me “no, no, we are not going to wear that, that won’t work!” With that information you had to know what would work; what was going to hurt their knees if they fell down, or what kind of things would stay on their suit, little things they already know and are watching to see if you know.

TBB: So you had the wrestling fashion police and now you have the ballet fashion police!

Amy: It is a very different fashion police but it was true! They were professionals and you would be doing their craft a disservice by not knowing.

TBB: Had you seen a lot of ballet before this project?

Amy: I had, although I have to say, I grew up seeing the classics, things everybody has seen like The Nutcracker, Giselle. For the film, we saw things that weren’t exactly traditional ballet. For example, in doing the research we saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and other things that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with classics.

TBB: We did sense a touch of Matthew Bourne in the makeup, especially Natalie Portman’s eyes and arms. Is that where it came from?

Amy: Yes, his version was important to our research, his take on ballet is so original and his colours so interesting. Obviously our Swan Lake came out very differently, his is such an “extreme Swan Lake” version. We covered the whole gamut of what was out there and what people did, so we could set ourselves apart and do something different with it, a meld of different versions but Bourne definitely has some influence. We didn’t want this completely eclectic: we wanted to incorporate traditional aspects but at the same time for it to be more stylish.

TBB: Is that where Rodarte comes into play?

Amy: Yes, their last line, fall 2010 I think, was very “vulture-inspired”. They had all these black feathers and things like that… this was their line, but for us they designed new things, we collaborated the whole time on the more traditional sense on doing the tutus but their line was so interesting in that it was already sort of bird-inspired! Darren and I worked with them, so they redid the costumes and had a fresh take on it, which was great. For the corps the costumes were designed by a great ballet designer named Jack Brown and then Rodarte added pieces to that, to make it work with their black and white swans. But for the principals they completely did the costumes from scratch on their own. They were fully functioning ballet costumes.

TBB: And how about everyday gear? We know you worked mainly with Yumiko…

Amy: I worked very closely with Yumiko because we had a lot of custom things for everyday use, for Natalie and Mila’s characters. We had a very strict four-colour palette: mostly black, grey, white and pink. They were a very important part of the film because they have such a beautiful line. Almost everyone I spoke to at ABT and City Ballet kept saying “Yumiko, Yumiko… check them out”. This was what the girls wore, it was clearly one of the favourite brands professional dancers wore. So I had an appointment with Frank [Leusner] and they were so helpful and really collaborative as far as the pieces the girls wore on their everyday rehearsals. And we had very beautiful things made. Everything had to be made twice because there were also dancers doubling up for the principals.

We went through their catalogue, so the leotards were part of the line but we redid the colours and the fabrics. So if the audience sees a great leotard in Natalie Portman they might say “well I recognise that as Yumiko and I want to get that!” And it was also important for me, in keeping with the realism. You don’t want to completely reinvent the wheel.

Mila Kunis in a scene from Black Swan. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight ©


TBB: What about shoes?

Amy: We used many, mostly Freed, Mirella, and a lot of the girls would bring their own shoes. We wanted them to use what they had. For the shoots we would have lots of Freeds and Mirellas on stock, mainly for the rehearsal scenes.

TBB: How did you go about characterizing Nina and Lily, polar opposites who are also twin souls?

Amy: They were almost cliché in the sense of pink for Nina and grey and black for Lily. And then we carefully worked in some grey into Nina and slowly worked in some pink into Lily, and by the end of the movie, Nina has some black, and it is more black and grey – she almost loses the pink – and Lily is in some white with grey, she didn’t lighten. Slowly, as Nina’s character unravels, her colours become darker.

When I went to see classes I observed dancers would sneak up some crazy knitwear over the leotard, like the sweater instead they would wear it like a skirt…they completely reinvent pieces that they put on top of their leotard. In our case we used layering to give more interest to the practice outfits but of course there were constraints in the colour palette and this process had to be very well timed so you are not putting the wrong layer, because we are dealing with so many and you’d go “I’ve used the pink legwarmers” and then it is too late for the pink!

TBB: It looks like all that requires a keen eye for detail!

Amy: Yes, I had a great team: the people on set and my wardrobe supervisor who was making sure of continuity. It is a hard job because if they take off one piece in a dancing scene and then they take off another piece, you have to make sure that it happens exactly where it is supposed to happen by the time you need to get a different angle, or a wide-shot. There was a lot to remember.

TBB: Are you going to watch ballet more often now?

Amy: Absolutely, I got such a new found love for it, it is just so beautiful and I have so much respect for it; like the ballerina that does the black swan Pas de Deux, the fouettés… I wanted to clap each and every time she did it because it was so beautiful and it is so much harder than we give it credit for. We don’t get our heads around how hard it is.

It is the same with wrestling actually. They make it look like “oh you know, they are just hitting each other on the head” but these guys are going through pain, they are going through all sorts of physical torment for our entertainment. And it is the same with ballet, so much physical torment and it’s all for us, for the audience, for the people who enjoy ballet. It was a great learning experience. I feel like I know so much more about it and about ballerinas themselves now.


Be the first to own one of the limited edition leotards created by Yumiko for the movie Black Swan:

To celebrate the launch of Black Swan Yumiko is giving away TWO exclusive, limited edition “YUMIKO for Black Swan” leotards:

Wendy: as worn by Natalie Portman’s character Nina, in gray microfiber base and nylon white trim with a full front lining. Retails at $61.

Daniela: as worn by Mila Kunis’s character Lily, in black nylon base with white nylon trim & a bust panel, also with a pinch in the front (never before seen in any Yumiko piece). Retails at $60.

These pieces will not be available to order in store or online until the beginning of December. Our two winners will receive made to order pieces in the size they wear.

How to enter:

Use comment form below or email us at theballetbag[at]gmail.com by Thursday 28 October and let us know:

What is your favorite production of Swan Lake and why?

You can pick any Swan Lake production, from Matthew Bourne’s to ABT’s, happy ending or sad ending. Just tell us why that one is special to you. Entries from all over the globe are welcome. Be creative & good luck!

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{ 52 comments }

Emilia November 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Results are in everyone! Click here to see if you won a Yumiko exclusive leotard:

http://www.theballetbag.com/2010/11/03/black-swan-review-aronofsky/

Hannah November 22, 2010 at 6:21 am

I love abt’s version esp when Gillian Murphy does Odette. She is phenomenal. So innocent as a white swan, so pure, then so seductive and dark as black swan. It’s incredible.

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