The riveting drama of Argo unfolds during the late 1970s and early 1980s in revolutionary Iran, Hollywood and the CIA headquarters. To help recreate the thoroughly different worlds, director Ben Affleck enlisted costume designer Jacqueline West to authentically dress the numerous characters. West has received two previous Academy Awards and Costume Designers Guild Awards nominations for her work on Quills (2000) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009).
West met Affleck on the set of a Terence Malick film they both happened to be working on and he gave her his script for Argo. Affleck knew she would want to do the costume design once she read the story of exfiltration expert Tony Mendez rescuing six Americans hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Iran during the revolution. “I loved the script so much,” West said. “I’d done two movies with Ben working with him as an actor and liked him so much, just his manner and take on things and his aesthetics, and I knew it’d be a great collaboration.”
West drew her inspiration from a wide array of research, including books like “The Great Canadian Caper” and “The Little Gray Man,” Tony Mendez’s book about his work, as well as newsreels, photographs and eyewitnesses who lived through the period of unrest.
One of the most difficult sequences happens in the opening of the film, when West had to match real historical footage of Iranian revolutionaries going over the wall of the American embassy to take over. “Making it exact so [the director] could cut from actual footage to our actual actors that were standing on the wall of the gate and…storming the embassy… to get that exact as it was, was a challenge,” West explained. Shooting the massive scene was an experience she would never forget. “We took 95 e-crates on our own jumbo 747 jet to dress the whole crowd, and looking out onto the crowd we’d been dressing since 2:30 in the morning and seeing them all dressed in ’70s clothing, that array of thousands of people was so moving, I think I got tears in my eyes,” West continued.
Imbuing authenticity to the six trapped American characters was also not a simple task since there were very few photographs of them during this time or even of the Canadian ambassador’s home. West read about them by description, noting that they had few clothes to work with, and fashioned subtly distinct personalities through the way they dressed.
So true to life was the film they were making, West found herself moved again, as the progression of the true story reached its climax. After the six Americans pass through multiple scrutinizing scenes, when it did not appear like they were going to make it out of the country alive, they finally arrive on the plane. The sequence was shot at a soundstage on a stationary plane and used cutaway shots. “We were all standing watching the monitor and we all started crying when the plane took off even though it was a stationary plane,” West said. “The scene was so moving. [When the loudspeaker announced] they’ve cleared Tehran airspace, it was so real…so beautiful…I think it’s a memory I’ll never forget.”