This article contains plot details from A Simple Favor.
Emily Nelson has invited a stranger into her home, a stranger in cat socks from Target. They encountered each other in the school parking lot—one a pinstriped pillar, the other a jumble of pleasant colors and patterns. Because their sons wanted to play together, here they stand. The stranger is uncomfortable, off-balance; she doesn’t match these rooms. Yet Emily chooses to make herself, and not her guest, more comfortable. She takes off her jacket. What looked like a crisp white blouse is revealed to be sleeveless, with matching cuffs; she undoes a top button, pulls, and the shirt is revealed to be a dickie. Emily intends to startle her guest, and to relax herself, all in one weird power play, but the film she inhabits has even bigger plans. It aims to teach its audience about what they’re watching: a misdirect within a misdirect, delivered in a manner that’s a little sexy and a little crazy. A dickie does all that in one small moment.
When people discuss “costume design,” they’re often talking about a lot of fabric and foofaraw. Corsets. Petticoats. Beading. Maybe there’s plated armor involved, or maybe lots of distressed leather. The function of costuming in film isn’t merely to root the characters in a specific time, place, or class. Although those elements certainly play a role, its true purpose is no more or less than to help tell the story—to illuminate the characters, underline the themes, capture a feeling or mood, and comment on the world of the film, as well as the one we inhabit. That’s no less true of costume design for contemporary films than it is for period pieces, but perhaps because no one in such films wears a bum roll or a toque hat, the former often goes unheralded. And so here we are, staring down the barrel of an awards season in which one of last year’s best costume design feats will likely go entirely unrecognized. It’s enough to make you want to burn down your childhood home and abscond in your most practical Louboutins.
A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s stylish comedic thriller, uses costume design as intelligently as any other film in 2018. Designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus, who won a Costume Designers Guild Award in 2017 for Hidden Figures, outfits Emily (Blake Lively) and Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) in wardrobes that evolve as their relationship does. Their clothes reveal to the audience both who these characters are and what image they hope to project, illuminating their inner lives while outwardly being used to manipulate others. The vintage suiting and denim jackets comment on gender roles, illustrate power dynamics, and serve as armor. As a bonus, the ensembles seem destined to inspire drag queens for years to come.
That last bit may not be true of the costumes for Stephanie, but Emily’s vintage Ralph Lauren suits certainly had a moment in the sun.
Kalfus, who collaborated with Lively when defining Emily’s aesthetic, took inspiration from a source that was very close at hand. As she put it to Vanity Fair:
“Paul [Feig] walks around in three-piece suits every day.” The idea to dress Emily like Feig struck both Lively and Kalfus simultaneously. Said Kalfus, “Blake and I said, ‘How about men’s suiting?’”
Using suits from the Ralph Lauren archives, vintage tie bars and watch fobs, and endless red-bottomed Christian Louboutin shoes, Kalfus outfitted Emily like a contemporary dandy. She wants to be looked at, to be incongruous; her clothing tells those she encounters that she’s in control and uninterested in the typical conventions of gender and motherhood. She wears exactly one dress in the film, and that dress is a taunt, the sartorial equivalent of a touchdown dance. Her clothes announce that she’s the powerful one, that she has her shit together and is unafraid of anyone and anything. As she tells Stephanie, when dealing with other people, especially powerful people, “You have to go right at them… Or they will fuck you in the face.”
So Emily goes right at them with her clothing, but it’s all just armor. She’s hiding in plain sight, using her suits to help hold a troubled past underwater, as if she might drown it with bowties and bespoke vests. She loudly proclaims through her wardrobe that she is not to be fucked with, because if someone chose to do a little digging, her whole world might come crumbling down. The clothing doth protest too much.
That’s equally true, if not more so, of Stephanie’s wardrobe. Stephanie projects cheery, approachable warmth, rather than intimidating “fuck you in the face” cool, but unattainability is still a factor. She’s not cool; she’s Super-Mom. This is also clothing-as-denial, hiding a whole mess of trauma, grief, and guilt; it also belies her crackling intelligence and a dormant streak of ruthlessness. Cute cat socks don’t drive to Michigan to interrogate someone’s mom under the guise of being a cleaning lady.
That cognitive dissonance is asserted in the clothes, as well. A particularly memorable costume, worn after Stephanie has taken up with Emily’s widowed husband, consists of a pom-pom-covered sweater and a skirt covered with chiffon appliqué flowers. It’s a Pinterest board come to life, but the pieces not only clash with the minimalist home that might become her own but also with each other. In another scene, Stephanie tries on one of Emily’s designer evening gowns and gets stuck in it shortly before being interrogated by the police. This other woman’s life literally doesn’t fit, and she just as literally can’t get out.
Kalfus’ designs deliberately play into and against expectations, but more importantly, each feels as though the clothing had been chosen by the wearer to convey or hide certain truths. That’s a dynamic also at work in The Favourite, another excellent film from last year that subverts traditional gender roles and makes the constantly shifting balance of power key to its plot. All three of the women in that film choose their clothing with similar care, using pants or frills or necklines to manipulate others. Sandy Powell’s spectacular designs are worthy of all the praise they’re receiving, and she’s likely to pick up a fourth Oscar, after wins for The Young Victoria, The Aviator, and Shakespeare In Love. She might even be nominated twice (also for Mary Poppins Returns), as she was in 2016. Other possible nominees include Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther), Alexandra Byrne (Mary Queen Of Scots), and Colleen Atwood (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald), as well as Mary E. Vogt for Crazy Rich Asians, the rare contemporary contender that proves the rule: Only period pieces and fantasies have a shot, but fantasy is a term that can include both a post-apocalyptic landscape (Mad Max: Fury Road) and the lives of the Singaporean super-duper rich as portrayed in a candy-colored rom-com.
So why not A Simple Favor? Perhaps it’s because the fantasy isn’t the story itself. It’s the story each of these women are telling; the costumes are a visual demonstration of how those stories change over time. By the time Lively strolls up to Emily’s tombstone in an ivory suit with seemingly nothing on beneath her jacket, wielding Paul Feig’s skull-topped walking stick and wearing an untied bowtie covered in chains, the sartorial story of each character has shifted several times, from a Hermès scarf to pink crinoline to a red bandana. Emily’s exposed sternum seems to signal defeat. But the film’s best costume is still to come.
As A Simple Favor enters its last act and Emily maneuvers into place for her final twist, she emerges from the motel in which she’s been hiding, wearing elements of all her facades: Hoops fill the multiple ear piercings of a teenage runaway. One wrist bears an expensive watch, the other a faded tattoo. Black leggings tuck into a pair of expensive, spike-covered boots, the latter one of the only pieces she wears more than once. The first time was on a dock near a lake in Michigan. A simple, ladylike white camisole is covered by a black and red, hooded flannel. The flannel is covered by a chic pinstriped duster. She throws a wrench into the air and stands smiling, face to the sun, as it careens toward her, ready to give herself another necessary accessory in the form of a black eye. Her hair shines, her skin glows, and she takes from her pocket a strand of white pearls. They’re around her neck before the wrench hits her face. When the camera comes to, she’s in a new set of armor.
Sometimes to get what you want from people, you have to go right at them, or they will fuck you in the face. So here goes. Academy voters, hear this: Give A Simple Favor an Oscar, you cowards.