J. Edgar follows the fascinating public and private life of the powerful political figure who was the first director of the FBI. To help tell a story that progresses nonlinearly through time, director Clint Eastwood enlisted Deborah Hopper for the costume design. The film jumps back and forth from one era to another and all 137 minutes of film are distinctly marked in time by the clothing. Hopper, who has worked with Eastwood on many other films including Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima, began the process with in depth research. “[My team and I] did research about Hoover, looked at stills for what he looked like and the different decades. We did research on everyone because everyone in the movie were historical figures,” Hopper explains. J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) are all portrayed with a seamless realism in the film.
Hopper worked closely with Eastwood to bring to life the different periods of time in the story. The clothing are flashes of time like a clock ticking in the foreground announcing to the audience where they are in the timeline of the story. After researching all the decades represented in the film, Hopper discussed the characters with Eastwood. From there she created costume boards and began costume fittings with the cast. The 1920s were a collection of brown tones with textured fabrics. The 1930s were darker colors of browns, navys and grays. More pattern and style were in the fabrics. All the periods were carefully constructed with a different color palate to classify each decade and to help guide the audience.
Hoover alone had 80 changes in the film. It required an incredible amount of effort and forethought to follow the lives of several characters over the period of a lifetime. “It was a challenge to dress actual historical figures. All Leo’s and [Armie Hamer’s] suits were made because they’re tall and you can’t find those in rental,” Hopper says. Another challenging factor was the limited time with which Hopper had to pull together all the looks each character wore. “Naomi Watt’s look was more feminine and lacy [in the 1920s], as she went through the 1930s, she went to suits. Hers were a mix of rental clothes and things that were made for her. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we made things work.”
Hopper and her team were committed to making the characters as real as possible. “To make the actors become these historical figures, to make the transformation, we had to do a body suit for Leo to make him a different size for when we got to the 1930s. With the 1960s we made body pieces to make him rounder. Then obviously we had to make clothing to accommodate that. With [Armie Hammer] we did that too. Same with Naomi. Everyone had to age,” Hopper says.
Dressing plays an important role in structure of the film and defines a part of the story about who J. Hoover, the man, was. The achievement of the costume design in this film was a process that Hopper took great pleasure in. “I’ve been with Clint for a long time. I enjoy working with Clint. I love working with him because he trusts me and trusts my work.”