A while ago I had the exciting opportunity to interview Marilyn Vance, the costume designer on Pretty Woman, in a coffee shop in LA. She told me all about her work on the film, and I got some real insight into how she created the costumes for Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
For a start, Julia’s wardrobe was made from scratch, (as well as Richard Gere’s suits) which is quite a rarity for contemporary films – particularly because costume designers don’t often have the time or the budget do so.
I absolutely loved Pretty Woman as a 12 year old, and it was one of those films that I would watch over and over again. I didn’t quite get the prostitute references, I think I just thought she was hanging out on a street corner with her pal Kit, just, you know, talking to men for fun.
But it was such a feel-good, romantic film and that shopping montage is a little cheesy, but all decent films in the 80s and early 90s needed at least one up-beat music montage.
Julia Roberts was, as the New York Times referred to her, “Cinderella in vinyl boots” who made being a prostitute look like a bit of a lark. Not only did her make-over wardrobe provoke some wish fulfillment, but her street walker uniform of over-the-knee boots and cheap lycra became the model of hooker-chic.
The whole film, especially the much imitated montage and shopping scenes on Rodeo Drive, seemed to create a sense of empowerment for women. In particular that moment of revenge when she returns to the store where the snooty assistants had turned her away for not looking right. “Big mistake, big, huge. I have to go shopping now.”
“I loved making Julia’s clothing,” Marilyn Vance told me. “It was all couture style with luxurious underlining, and it had to be that way for the film. She was so young back then, 21 or 22, and she was so patient to work with, despite the fittings and the colour tests for hours.”
To create character-led costumes, Marilyn said she “figures out how they live, how much money they make, their personality. I really do an investigation, and create what I think is their character and it becomes subliminal.”
The hooker costume
There were a number of different looks that told the story. The opening prostitute outfit acts as tough, street smart protection for Vivien, leaving her fidgeting and nervous the first time she is without the blonde wig and in a simple dressing gown. Each look from then on becomes simpler and more elegant.
“Vivian, the hooker, is very smart. We first see her in so much stuff, with piles of jewellery, the boots and hat. She then comes across this guy who is very simple looking, clean, nothing gaudy, and she picks up on this and pairs it down. She is smart enough to see this, and that is how she begins to dress.”
Four copies of the two piece dress were created, “because the fabric was so cheesy. The skirt wasn’t denim, but a stretchy fabric which I dyed.” The dress was a copy of a 60s bathing suit that Marilyn once owned, with a ring linking the top with the bottom.
She ordered the long vinyl boots from a store in Chelsea, London, called NaNa.
Director Gary Marshall had originally wanted Vivian to wear heels, but Marilyn said, “I told him, no, she had to wear the boots, and I compromised with heels in the later scene on Rodeo drive, when she wears the dress with one of Edward’s shirts over the top.”
Gary Marshall had the idea of a fifties band jacket worn over the dress, as if it was an ex-boyfriend’s, so the costume department made one from scratch. The look was finished with Marilyn’s own Greek fisherman’s hat, and then “accessorised with all the junk and jewels.”
Her outfit is so revealing that Edward covers her up in the hotel lobby with his trench coat. The coat was custom-made from silk, as Marilyn couldn’t find a coat with an exact shade of grey that worked, and in a light fabric. “She wraps herself in it, so I didn’t want it to be bulky, I wanted it to be easy.”
“Just wearing that dress was awful!” Roberts said at the time. “I’d get catcalls and stupid remarks from guys on the street when we’d be doing exteriors. It wasn’t fun at all. I felt so offended. I don’t get that in real life.”
The black cocktail dress
“I had gold and black lace, and I tried out different under colours – black, nude, gold – before deciding on black. I cut out the neckline to fall on the shoulders, as this opened out the neckline, which was more flattering on Julia’s narrow shoulders. I also made a bolero to go with the dress, and while she didn’t wear it in the scene, you can see it on the chair. They copied it in the garment district, and I wish I had a dollar for every copy they sold.”
The dress worn to the polo was, like the Ascot dress in My Fair Lady, meant to showcase Vivian’s new found refinement. “It was to be simple, understated, lady-like. None of us expected it to have such an impact and to last so long,” said Marilyn.
Created from polka dot silk, the neckline of the dress was cut open and it was accessorised with the Anna Kline belt, Chanel shoes and hand-made pearl earrings.
Marilyn found the rust-coloured silk hidden away in the basement of a West Hollywood fabric shop called Beverley silks and woollens.
“They have really good, old pieces of fabric there, and the owner was an overly crotchety man, and his son, who would also work there. So I went over there to search for fabric, but couldn’t find anything that was right. I begged the guy to go into the basement where I knew they kept these really great pieces. Finally he let me, and there was this incredible piece of silk, but just enough for one dress. I fell in love with the colour, as it really went with her hair and eyes. I first created a simpler ballerina length, and if we went with that she would wear the Chanel flats. But if we did knee length, then she would wear the Chanel heal and we would have fabric left for the hat.”
The red opera gown was to be the modern equivalent of the ‘Embassy Ball’ dress in My Fair Lady, and Marilyn Vance also said she was inspired by John Singer Sergeant’s Madame X. But the red opera gown may have been a black ballgown if the studio and Garry Marshall had their way.
“Gary didn’t want red, he wanted black,” said Marilyn. “I knew that it had to be red so I fought for it. Gary also wanted it to be a ballgown, but I knew this was way too much – no one would go near her like that. So I paired it down. We went through four designs to get it right, and hardly had fabric left by the end.”
So instead of using mounds of fabric to create a bustle at the back as her original design had shown, she tied fabric around front, which also helped to emphasise her waist.
“Julia doesn’t have broad shoulders, so I took that into consideration when creating a neckline to compliment her, by opening it up. It also had to have great line for the necklace, and her hair also had to be just right. Each thing was a little, important moment.”
The blazer and jeans combo
“At the end of the film she is really a cool girl, she wants to go to college, get into a career. So she goes through the full arc and is paired down in a navy blazer, jeans and t-shirt,” said Marilyn.
And finally, a bit about Richard Gere
The only item that was bought was the tuxedo worn to the Opera. The rest of Richard Gere’s wardrobe, including his shirts and ties, were made from Cerrutti fabric, which she handpicked from Italy.
“In 1990, there was a lot of tweed at the time for male suits, but I needed clean gabardine as he was supposed to be a successful business man. So we ended up making everything. Richard went through so many fittings,” said Marilyn.