Serious Man, A: Up/Tuck – Costume Design for the Period Piece

Joel and Ethan Coen, the masterminds behind hits such as "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," and "Burn After Reading." Their latest film, "A Serious Man," is being released by Focus Features on October 2, 2009.

When making a movie set in the past, actors rely upon components of their costumes to impact and enhance their portrayal so that they truly feel in-character.

It's all in day's work for the Coens' longtime costume designer Mary Zophres and her department. She notes, "Every scene and tableau in A Serious Man had a personality to it.?

"The Jewish Cultural Foundation of the Upper Midwest has a photo archive that they were kind enough to share with me, as well as with the art department; we in turn shared it with the hair and make-up crews. I was inspired by the Foundation's archive as much as I was by the script."

Zophres discovered that the Minneapolis area in 1967 was not yet keeping pace with more fashion-forward-looking parts of the country. "If the film had taken place in 1969, it would have had a completely different look," she asserts. "But in 1967, in this suburb of a smallish city, things were more conservative; it was still not yet 'the swinging '60s.' Danny Gopnik may be listening to Jefferson Airplane, but he's not dressing like Jefferson Airplane; his father would have grabbed him by the ear, and it's his mother who still buys his clothes."

Many of the film's characters are obliged to adhere to a specific formal dress code, from the university faculty and students to the younger Hebrew students. With that in mind, Zophres discussed the film's clothes' color palette early on with the Coens and with Jess Gonchor and ??Roger Deakins. The Gopniks' story transpires in May, which would seem to call for pastel colors, yet Zophres felt otherwise; "I showed Joel and Ethan Coen a page from a Sears Roebuck catalog called 'Deep Autumnal,' and that's more or less the color palette we decided on. This movie has quite a bit of blue, and some color combinations – like turquoise with olive green, which is a very '60s mix. I only used certain colors, but I used them intensely. The women were all costumed in the darker ends of our palette – black, chocolate brown, or deep deep green."?

An Unfamiliar Style

The main cast and the extras frequently needed instructions on how to dress in what was oddly unfamiliar clothing. For instance, notes Zophres, "In the 1960s there was very little break in a pair of men's pants. To a lot of the actors who were used to wearing contemporary pants, I had to say 'Pull up your pants!' It became my mantra for the extras. ?

"Assistant costume designer Jenny Eagan and I also went around saying 'Tuck in your shirt,' because back then people took care in how they dressed. When you went to the grocery store, you put on clothes, not sneakers or a track suit. Those weren't everyday clothes yet. It was still a time when people made the effort to prepare and present themselves to their neighbors."?

Zophres clarifies, "Every extra who was dressed for the movie was dressed by either Jenny or myself. We had to be happy with the way everybody looked, so that any of them could be called for any scene or shot and ready to go. People would come in from casting, and I would get inspired just from seeing their faces. We had some great faces on A Serious Man."

Women's Clothing

Women's clothes were the most specifically fit and tailored. Zophres reveals, "All of the women in the movie wore the appropriate undergarments. Blouses had darts in them then, so if you didn't wear the right bra, the shirt didn't fit the right way."

?Judith Gopnik's look was fashioned after the Jewish Cultural Foundation photographs, requiring a head-to-toe transformation of Sari Lennick. Zophres remembers, "We broke it to Sari slowly; she would get to keep her hair length, but we were going to dye it brown to match the other Gopniks'. Her hair was cut and styled to match a specific photo that we had found from 1967.

"Then we put on the clothes. Low shoes. Skirts at the most unflattering length ever, right in the middle of the calf. Plaid blouses. It was quite a 'before and after' transformation, but Sari was totally into it."?

?College Dress for Men

Photos of physics departments' professors in 1960s Minnesota college yearbooks pointed the way towards the ensemble for Professor Larry Gopnik. Short-sleeved dress shirts were key, not only because the month is May but also "because they had a nerd appeal," states Zophres.

The short-sleeved dress shirts were combined with conservative suits and ties, sport coats and trousers, and outfitted with a pocket protector. Zophres offers, "It might be a cliche, but on Michael Stuhlbarg it looked so real. His pants were also a bit short and he was able to wear the ideal period shoes, some of which had never been worn before. Michael put on the clothes and he just became the character!"

In the era before contact lenses became more prevalent, eyeglasses were more commonplace, and "these were so important to the character of Larry in particular. From the first reading of the script, I was sure he should have them. But between him and a number of other characters wearing glasses, it was an added challenge for Roger Deakins," admits Zophres. "So each set of glasses was made with two different sets of lenses – one set clear, one anti-reflective-coated – that could be alternated depending on the lighting needs."

Costume Oddities

The unhappy Uncle Arthur remains in his pajamas a great deal of the time, and Richard Kind further suggested that his character's clothing be a bit too big. Zophres agreed, so that "nothing fits him quite right – the sleeves are too long, for instance – and that adds to his depression. You give someone a costume with shoulders that come down low, and his shoulders will themselves slope."??

It was for Sy Ableman that Zophres was able to go all-out. She notes, "Sy is the cosmopolitan one of the community. In the script, it says that he wears his shirts outside of his clothes and they tent out over his stomach. We wound up making all of his shirts; the first one he wears in the movie was from a Tahitian-styled fabric I originally bought for Leonardo DiCaprio on Catch Me If You Can. I had ended up not using it and still had it in my garage. Sy's the kind of guy who you can imagine as having been on vacation, maybe on some cruises to places the Gopniks would not have had to money to go to.

"We did not have the money to make this on the budget that most period films would be, so we prepared exactly what we needed to prepare. I loved doing it all."