“Maestro” Costume Designer Mark Bridges on Charting the Bernstein’s Ever-Changing Style
It’s no accident that Maestro (on Netflix and in theaters) begins with Bradley Cooper’s elderly Leonard Bernstein reflecting on how much he misses his late wife Felicia, portrayed by Carey Mulligan. The biopic, of course, includes bits of Bernstein’s greatest hits as a composer and conductor, from West Side Story to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. But the movie concentrates mainly on the complicated relationship between the bisexual Bernstein and the stylish actress who found herself living in the shadow of America’s most celebrated classical music talent.
Maestro star/co-writer/director/producer Cooper recruited two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges (The Artist, Phantom Thread) to chart the sartorial changes experienced by the man and his muse over the course of four decades. Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of 20th-century fashion, Bridges previously crafted costumes for period dramas by David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson. Four years ago, he talked to The Credits about his Oscar-nominated contributions to Joker.
This time around, Bridges, speaking from Los Angeles, explains the inspirations behind the “costume plot” he designed for Maestro‘s charismatic leads, encompassing everything from underwear and Chanel dresses to turtleneck sweaters.
In 1943, when 25-year-old Bernstein gets the phone call to conduct the New York Philharmonic for the first time, he jumps up and down in his boxer shorts. Period perfect?
Yes, At one point, Bradley wasn’t going to have anything on, but we thought better of that, so we made boxer shorts that had this funny adjustable band with an adjustable V in the back. And it’s funny because in the early seventies, we see Lenny change his clothes at the country home, and he’s got his tighty whites on. So we’re doing the passage of time in this story right down to the skin.
Once he gets dressed, Bernstein wears a natty double-breasted suit. Typical of the period?
I imagined someone at 25 has one good suit. A double-breasted suit would be accessible to Bernstein, and in fact, that’s what he wore, along with the kind of wristwatch I imagine someone like him would get as a graduation gift. Throughout the forties, we also have various degrees of casual clothes and chunky jackets, which were very specific to the language of men at that time.
In 1955, Bernstein’s now a family man, married with two kids as seen on Edward Morrow’s Person to Person TV show. Were you able to reference the program itself?
We tried to duplicate that show, which is available on YouTube, but the taping is kind of blurry, so you become a bit of an archaeologist. Then your brain takes over: “Let’s use a fabric with a little more sheen that will read better in black and white for our film purposes but also gives us the flavor of that person at that time. That suit we made for Bradley is still very formal because it’s how you’d present yourself to guests at your house in the fifties — you’d wear a suit and a necktie. And for Lenny’s country clothes in the fifties, when he’s running around with the kids, you try to be as simple as possible so you don’t distract from the actors.
The sixties represent a new chapter in Bernstein’s life. What was his signature outfit?
Starting in the late sixties, you get the groovier look with the boots, and it’s also what I call Lenny’s turtleneck period. He’s aging, so it covers up the neck, and also, the kids are wearing turtlenecks. In movies from the late sixties, you’ll often see four male characters wearing them. Turtlenecks were really a thing.
In 1971, Bernstein, dressed in a slim-fit suit, meets soon-to-be-boyfriend Tommy Cothran. Inspiration?
There’s a photo of Lenny in that glen-plaid gray suit when he first meets Tommy. He’s such a movie star in that photograph, and I just had to use it because the suit’s so strong and beautiful.
In that same scene, someone compliments Bernstein on his pocket-handkerchief, and he credits Felicia for picking out his clothes.
That’s true. Felicia kind of kept Lenny in line, but when left to his own devices, he had questionable taste.
How did you arrive at Lenny’s look for the 1980s?
Lenny’s daughter Jamie invited a few of us to his house in Connecticut and showed me his closet, which had this red jacket Lenny wore well into his sixties. It looked like something a 25-year-old kid would wear without the guiding hand of Felica and the constraints of his professional life. I use it for when Lenny drives onto the lawn. He had this joie de vivre right to the end, and the jacket just felt right for that “You’re as old as you feel” idea.
In Maestro, Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, displays this sophisticated sense of style despite significant inner turmoil. Where did you start with Felicia?
The first time we see Felicia at a party in 1946 at [pianist] Claudio Arrau’s house. There were rules about what you wore in post-war America: a nice cocktail dress for women and men in tuxedos. I wanted to dress Felicia up a little bit, so I gave her dress beaded embellishments, and of course, her gloves match the shoes, which match the purse, which matches the hat, which matches your wrap.
Mid-fifties, Felicia’s at the family country home chatting with Bernstein’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman), and for the first time, she’s wearing pants. What did you have in mind with that change of pace?
I thought pants would mix things up and speak to Felicia’s sense of independence and also to the casualness of being at her own country home. Anytime Lucille Ball got ready to do some kind of hare-brained scheme, she’d be in trousers, so pants like these were certainly available at the time, mainly for resort wear on vacation or in the privacy of your own family.
Backstage in the fifties, Felicia’s wearing this gorgeous gown. Inspiration?
The shape of that skirt was inspired by a shot of the two of them backstage, very typical fifties. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This is the person, this is the life; why don’t we address the script with these clothes that would speak volumes about what’s going on?
Around 1969, Felicia’s wearing this striking green dress when she has her big argument with Lenny about his affairs. How did you decide on that piece?
That green dress was inspired by a photograph of Felicia when she and Lenny had their Black Panther party. That dress informed Felicia’s neckline and the jewelry. We found a double-knit wool jersey and dyed it that green color to make it feel autumnal. For Lenny, in that scene, we found what I call a “holiday houndstooth,” which was this green, maroon, harvest gold, and burnt orange jacket.
Felicia’s Chanel suit later in the film reflects her wealth and taste. How did that outfit come to be?
The Channel suit was written into the script. Chanel sent us prototypes from the period and gave us Chanel fabrics to choose from. We used materials blessed by Chanel, including the buttons, which were gold. I thought Chanel was a great idea: clothing as protection. You won’t get any bad news if you’re dressed well.
In 1974, Felicia’s diagnosed with cancer. How did you dress her for that era?
With Felicia’s sickness, we go to the blue dress. I was inspired by a period dress that had a great shape and was flattering on Carey, so I used that as a prototype. Then we had to think about what color it should be. Green didn’t feel emotionally right, red was too sexy, but blue felt right because there’s a coolness about a woman who’s Mrs. Maestro. And it wouldn’t have worked unless we used a stiff fabric, which was woolen silk. We had an amazing cutter. April McCoy, who made that dress. Then we accessorized it with beautiful pearls and, of course, matching shoes.
Felicia’s deathbed scene, which will likely earn Carey Mulligan an Oscar nomination, must have required a sensitive touch from you and your team. How did you fit the clothes to the occasion?
For Felicia’s final scene, I had this amazing Liberty of London floral robe that Carey wore in bed. The idea that Felicia should be in a field of flowers felt right to me because it’s pretty to look at even though something very devastating is happening.
You dressed Bradley Cooper as an actor when he was in Silver Linings Playbook and Licorice Pizza, but on Maestro, he’s also the director. What was that like?
It was interesting working with Bradley on Maestro at this other level. As an actor, he’d look at the costume, feel it, and make sure he could act in it. But then there’s always the quiet moment of reflection where he’s going through it in his mind: “Will this work for my shot and how I want to direct the scene?” I was kind of blown away by his focus.
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Featured image: Maestro. (L to R) Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) in Maestro. Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023.