Culture

Dressing Scarlett: In Conversation with Mayes C. Rubeo

BURO. meets costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, who’s up for an Oscar next month for her work on Jojo Rabbit

21.01.2020

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*This story contains spoilers - don't read on if you're yet to see the film*

Even as a costume designer with such acclaimed films as James Cameron’s Avatar, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and the Brad Pitt-starring World War Z under her belt, Mayes C. Rubeo never dreamed she’d be nominated for an Oscar. But nominated she is, for Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, based on the Christine Leunen book Caging Skies. “It feels surreal. I’m not used to getting this [nomination], but I’m very happy, very humble and loving every moment of it,” she rejoiced over the phone from Atlanta, keen to thank also her “wonderful [assistant] designers Liz Krause and Joseph Feltus”. Rubeo is also up for a BAFTA.

The story centres around 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who is an enthusiastic (fanatic) member of his town’s Hitler youth training camp run by Captain Klenzendorf (portrayed by Sam Rockwell). So much so that the Fuhrer (comically played by Waititi) also serves to be his imaginary best friend dolling out equal measures of advice and brainwashing. At the same time his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson), a participant in the German resistance, is harbouring a Jewish girl in the attic. A secret that Jojo soon finds out with a series of coming-of-age consequences. “We’re a story about love and how we can change our minds and how life is resilient after all,” describes Rubeo, whose job it was to tell all of this through clothes, quite the feat given the clever but optimistic narrative in a dark, complicated time.

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Here she talks us through her designs and inspirations, and what it was like working with Scarlett.

On creating Scarlett’s (Rosie Betzlar) costumes

“Scarlett was already rumoured to be playing the part when I started this project so that was actually a good point of departure for my designs in my proposal inspiration,” explains Rubeo, crediting Johansson with a timelessness that can carry off any fashion period. Flying to New York for a fitting with the actress at the Peninsular Hotel, she recalls: “She was very collaborative, we had long conversations and she was very into it, she wanted to try everything. She’s a great actor so it was incredible input when she tried things [on]; I had a complete map of her wardrobe.”

On the vibrancy of colour in her costumes

While set during WW2, one of history’s darkest times, the costumes in Jojo Rabbit are surprisingly bright with reds, greens and turquoise blues among the punchy palette. “The number one point is that it’s [the film] is through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy who is in love with his mother so, of course, his memories are a lot more vibrant,” explains Rubeo. “They’re loving memories. The second point is that Rosie comes from a very artistic background and we like to believe she was upper middle class, so she has access to better fashion and, especially, would hang around with a wonderful group of intellectuals, artists, an eclectic group like Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvatore Ferragamo. Those who made fashion during this time. Because she’s an extrovert, she likes colour – her house shows colour. And this was the point of view of Taika. He didn’t want to do a grey WW2 film.” The clothes, therefore, were aged carefully so as not to be too faded yet still retain a believability. “Her costumes are not perfect. I never like to make costumes that are perfect” – something which in this instance perfectly reflects the make-do-and-mend mentality of the era, which was another area of research for Rubeo and her team.

On the fashion of the time

“There were a lot of restrictions [back then]. Everything was rationed” – from fabric to hats, which actually contributed to a lot of creativity. Women took men’s hats, she explains for example, and converted them into something akin to a fascinator. Notably, Johansson wears some great hats, reference points for which once again include Schiaparelli. You’ll also clock her rocking some great trousers, a demi-avant-garde move given that trousers were only just about coming into fashion at the time. “I chose to have Scarlett in pants quite a few times because although they weren’t that fashionable at the time, they were around and women wore them – for me they are a sign of emancipation.” And in-keeping with an homage to the avant-garde, Rubeo took inspiration from the abstract artist Sonia Delaunay, known for her vivid use of colour in optic-style prints, which further brought a vibrancy to the costumes.

The story behind Scarlett’s shoes

It’s more than likely that you’ll have left cinemas with a new-found urge for a pair of spectator shoes, thanks to their recurring appearance on Johansson’s feet. Made at Jitterbug shoes in Canada, the two-tone lace-ups had an especially significant, albeit heart-breaking, role to play. “The shoes reflect the duality of everyday happiness and, also bad news, confronting mortality,” explains Rubeo. Notably (and don’t read this part if you haven’t seen the film), it’s through her shoes, Jojo realises of his mother’s death. “When you are walking down the street in wartime and you’re also working for the resistance, you find yourself looking down a lot so the shoes represent something that would make you happy during horrible times. They reflect worse times and happier times.”

“The shoes reflect the duality of everyday happiness and, also bad news, confronting mortality,”

Where the outfits were sourced

A mix of custom-made and vintage pieces completed Rosie Betzlar’s wardrobe – Mimi Vintage Berlin came up with the goods on multiple occasions, as did flea markets in Prague and Rome - Rosie's sunglasses came from Porta Portese flea market at the latter. While fabrics were from Bassetti Rome.

On becoming a costume designer

“I always wanted to be a costume designer. I was born into a family that works in the film industry, mainly cinematographers and I always had this thing for costume, movies, and fashion – these wonderful worlds.” Rubeo first went to LA Trade Tech to learn the technical and construction side of things before topping up the artistic side with additional courses at UCLA and working pretty much every costume job in the industry to climb the ladder. Apart from one, a seamstress. Rubeo is self-confessedly bad at sewing. “It’s a bit strange, a bit of a contradiction,” she laughs.

What it was like working with Taika

“He has a super clear vision and he was super involved because he loves costumes and clothes and fashion – he tries everything on. He gives his undivided attention and his artistic background and eclectic mind makes it so whimsical and fun.” Indeed, if Wes Anderson were to pass on his idiosyncratic torch, Waititi and Rubeo could keep the flame alight.

images | shutterstock, imdb 

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