All The Rage

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Costume design: The foundations

December 8, 2008 |  2:12 pm

Rage_doubt_4 The somber black priests' robes and nuns' habits in “Doubt,” the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize- winning play about the clash between the forward-thinking Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the iron-fisted principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in a 1964 Catholic school, might not seem a likely place to find artistry in costume design. But, in the course of researching a piece about costumes in Oscar contender films that ran in the Image section Sunday, I discovered that these garments are the very foundation of this compelling story.

Costume designer Ann Roth hand-sewed each black habit as the nuns would have. The stiff black bonnets block out peripheral vision, mirroring Sister Aloysius’ blind justice. Putting on the layers in the morning was as much a rite as any liturgical one. (Incidentally, the habits were phased out in the late 1960s.) 

Naturally, since priests have the upper hand in this religious hierarchy, their robes are not as restraining. Father Flynn gets to wear colorful, embroidered vestments on Sundays and chooses to express himself by keeping his fingernails long, which irks Sister Aloysius. When she has him in her claws, she reprimands him like a child.

The parishioners are beautifully cast in an autumnal palette that helps establish the melancholy tone of the early 1960s, when culture was on the brink of change.

"Doubt" opens nationwide Friday.

-- Booth Moore

Photo: Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in "Doubt." Credit: Andrew Schwartz / Miramax Film Corp.