From sketch to real life, Jane Fonda evokes former first lady Nancy Reagan (The Weinstein Company)
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" spans eight decades and depicts a spectrum of characters that could make any costume designer's head spin: from a rural African-American field worker (portrayed by Mariah Carey) to a boozy-yet-stylish '50s lady (Oprah Winfrey — whose character traverses nearly all of the film's decades as the wife of longtime White House butler Cecil Gaines) to iconic first ladies including Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) and Jacqueline Kennedy (Minka Kelly).
From Fonda to Reagan
In the film, 75-year-old Fonda is in close replicas to the real clothing of '80s-era Nancy Reagan. "She loved red," Ruth Carter, costume designer for "The Butler," told Yahoo! Movies of Reagan. "A very vibrant tomato red — coined as 'Reagan Red,'" said Carter, who mimicked the designs of Reagan's favorite designers, including Bill Blass. Carter even replicated a gown Reagan wore to a state dinner.
It's not only the clothes, but Fonda's hair — which was coincidentally already in the right cut to play Reagan — and her makeup transformed the Oscar winner into a convincing facsimile of the former first lady.
But that doesn't mean there wasn't any drama in assuming the role. Fonda managed to avoid a wardrobe catastrophe, Carter recalled, on her first day of filming: one of Fonda's costumes went missing — and she was only scheduled to shoot for a few short days. "I was walking on pins and needles." But Fonda made it work, swapping a costume intended for another scene while she waited for the missing outfit to arrive (and it did, as a frantic Carter actually flew it in).
[Related: Oprah and Cast Serve Up 'Butler' Scoop]
Click through for more on Winfrey and Kelly's "Butler" transformations:
Minka Kelly brings a Jackie Kennedy outfit to life in 'The Butler' (The Weinstein Company)
For Minka Kelly to pull it off as the stylish Mrs. Kennedy, Carter knew she had to pay attention to detail. "My main focus was to make sure the pink Chanel suit she wears when the [JFK] assassination happens is perfect," said the costume designer. "Of course we want Jackie Kennedy's look to be as iconic as it was in real life."
Carter also painstakingly replicated looks by one of Kennedy's favorite designers, Oleg Cassini. And that pillbox hat was a must. "The scene where the Kennedy's greet the Butlers, [Kelly] is wearing the pillbox hat — which is real vintage." Carter made a Cassini-inspired coat to go with it.
She also carefully replicated a famous dress Kennedy wore to a performance by famed cellist and conductor Pablo Casals in 1961. "It's highly photographed," she said, explaining that she did an inordinate amount of research to get that yellow beaded dress right — even though it's worn by Kelly in one very short scene.
Fun, but Not Always Fashionable
Oprah Winfrey plays the White House butler's wife in the film (The Weinstein Company)
Winfrey does play a historical figure, but not one so well-known that the costumes had to be an exact match (as with Fonda and Kelly). Carter dressed Winfrey in '50s-era garb all the way through to a tacky '80s tracksuit. "That was Oprah's idea! … She said, 'I want to wear an '80s tracksuit, and I want a really really ugly one.'" (Oprah is seen wearing it here, standing next to Carter.)
Carter worked quite a lot with Winfrey, who had far more scenes than both Fonda and Kelly combined. "I had a great collection of things waiting for her," Carter said, characterizing Winfrey as very easy to work with. "She was very humble. …She's very trusting." Carter also admitted to being star struck the first time she met Winfrey. "'Wow,' I said. … I also said 'wow' to Jane Fonda … and Robin Williams … and Alan Rickman," she continued, ticking off "The Butler's" impressive ensemble cast.
The most complicated costumes — for historic icons in the Kennedy, Reagan, and Eisenhower administrations — all happened during the last three weeks of filming. "[In this film] I went through sharecroppers and Civil Rights — the '60s — and then at the very end I had the biggest challenges of the whole movie."
Our pillbox hat goes off to you, Ms. Carter!
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- Arts & Entertainment
- Jane Fonda
- Minka Kelly
- Nancy Reagan
- Jacqueline Kennedy
- Oprah Winfrey