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Sharen Davis: Dressing Southern belles, maids for 'The Help'

August 10, 2011 |  8:00 am

'The Help'

The costumes in “The Help,” the film based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, offer a glimpse into the fashions of the “Mad Men”-era South. Unlike their cosmopolitan counterparts working for the Sterling Cooper Agency in New York City in the early 1960s, the Southern belles in Jackson, Miss. were dressing for the bridge club, not the secretarial pool.

For costume designer Sharen Davis, that meant hyper-feminine dresses in Easter egg shades, with bold floral prints, modest necklines and full skirts nipped at the waist.

“This is probably the most color I’ve ever used in my life,” said Davis, whose credits include “Dreamgirls” and “Ray.” “And it’s the first time I have not used a color palette for a film. Each of the women had her own story, her own home and her own color palette.”

Davis built 50 costumes from scratch using vintage fabrics (the rest were sourced from costume rental shops and vintage stores).  The job was challenging because the film, which opens Wednesday, was shot in Greenwood, Miss., where resources were nil. “The only store is a Walmart. There wasn’t even a Starbucks or a Target,” she said. “I had to fly a lot of people back to L.A. for fittings on the weekends.”

Bryce Dallas Howard in 'The Help.'

 “The Help” revolves around Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). Freshly graduated from Ole Miss, she is ready to put marriage and family on hold to get a job in journalism, and, ultimately, to write a book about black maids working in the Jim Crow South. Not surprisingly, her proto-feminism is met with disdain from her bridge club peers, especially her friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). 

Davis paid keen attention to the details of every outfit, just as a Southern social butterfly would. She spent $15,000 alone on period accessories, including patent leather structured handbags with matching shoes, pearl choker necklaces and cluster earrings, cat’s eye sunglasses and garden party-festive hats.

If there is a Joan Holloway in “The Help,” it’s fish-out-of-water Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a town newcomer whose hourglass figure and clingy clothes leave little to the imagination. “In the book, the character loved Marilyn Monroe, so we stayed with that. We padded poor Jessica with bigger breasts and bigger hips. We used waist-cinchers too. It’s a very Hollywood look but tacky and country.”

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help."

Davis first turned to old Vogue magazines for research, but found the looks too fashionable for everyday people. “Jackson is a very small town, and women there may have been watching the style of Jackie O, but they were two years behind her in fashion.”

So she looked to 1960s-era Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward catalogs instead. Seventeen magazine was also a guide. “There’s a line in the book that describes these women as ‘babies making babies,’ and that’s what they were,” Davis said.

Emma Stone in "The Help" Except for Skeeter. “Skeeter was a bit of a tomboy. She didn’t care how she looked. Her objective was to appear business-like, not feminine or masculine,” said Davis, who consulted photos of students from a 1960s Ole Miss yearbook for ideas for the character’s coordinated sportswear separates in earth tones.

When Skeeter lands a job writing the “Miss Myrna” cleaning hints column for the local newspaper, she seeks assistance from the help of the title. More than their stain-fighting tricks, she is taken with their stories. So she starts on a journey to record the experiences of Aibileen (Viola Davis), Minny (Octavia Spencer) and other maids working for white families.

For Davis, who is African American, creating the costumes for the black maids had special meaning because her grandmother, Nelly Moseley, worked as domestic help in Louisiana during the same time period as the film’s.

“In the book, the uniforms were white. We tested white uniforms for the film, and yellow and pink. But they looked like nurse’s uniforms,” Davis said. She settled on gray, which is what her grandmother wore. 

All of the uniforms were plain cotton, except for Minny’s, which was made from a gray pinstripe fabric sourced from Los Angeles-based designer James Perse.  “We went to this place in downtown L.A. that sells ends of designer fabric,” said Davis. The irony isn’t lost on her. “The rest of the fabric was probably used to make expensive shirts!”

-- Booth Moore

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Photos from "The Help," from top: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, back to camera) plays bridge with friends Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna OReilly, from right), Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Jolene French (Anna Camp), while Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) looks on.

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard)

Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) and Minny (Octavia Spencer)

Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). Credit: Dale Robinette/Dreamworks.

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