When costume designer Sharen Davis read The Help years ago, she immediately felt a deep connection with the book. “I loved the book so much, it was really serendipitous,” Davis says about getting on board as the costume designer of the 1960s era film about African-American maid’s experiences working for white families during the civil rights movement.
Davis’ work on the film helped breathe life to each character who are all represented so well, as if they were visualized and the facets of their personalities were put to fabric. The splashes of color on each character speak volumes about who they are. Skeeter (Emma Stone), the idealistic heroine of the film who refuses to get married like the rest of the “proper girls” of her time, dons Peter Pan collars, shirt-dresses and plaids. Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the insecure schemer who will do anything to secure her social standing in town and keep things the way they are wears the brightest florals and the loudest bows. Elizabeth (Ahna O’ Reilly), the girl who isn’t capable of mothering her own children and stands by submissively as everything unfolds, wears more muted florals. The camera introduces Celia (Jessica Chastain) the girl living on the outskirts of town looking in, feet first, clad in sky high platforms before panning to her bare legs and revealing her fitted romper. Her clothes suit her bubbly, giggly personality. She is the housewife who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t like the rest, but is actually more accepting and more humane than anyone else. Her va-va voom silhouettes seem to scream her openness to life and change. As for the maids, when they aren’t in their blue-gray uniforms, they are dressed in salt of the earth tones: mustards, dark browns, maroons, suggesting an earthiness and strength in the very essence of who they are. The colors are saturated, like the richness, bravery of the story and the characters.
Davis sought to avoiding cliches and anything over the top in her work. The Help is the first film she has worked on without using a central color palate. She dressed each character so they could stand on their own with their distinct, individual personalities. She wanted to make sure none of characters were characterized. Davis has worked on other civil rights era films (Ray, Dreamgirls), but this film involved creating something entirely new. About her work, she says, “You really have to love it, listen and learn, learning personalities. Keep your energy and creativity open. It never gets easier.”
For research, Davis leafed through pages of magazines and couldn’t quite find the look of the characters until she stumbled upon Seventeen magazine. “I opened Seventeen and there they were. It’s like the movie said, Babies having babies,” she says, referring to the youthful housewives trying to navigate a life of adult responsibilities.
Another inspiration for The Help was closer to home: Davis hails from the South and her grandmother had worked as a domestic in Louisiana in the 1960s. Her grandmother was called upon for advice and contributed to the idea of how the maids are dressed in the film. The book mentioned white uniforms, but Davis’ grandmother explained that white uniforms weren’t really worn until later in the decade. In the early 1960s, when the film takes place, domestics wore gray uniforms.
Davis’ attributes the great accomplishment of the look of the film to working closely with the director (Tate Taylor), the production designer (Mark Ricker) and the editor (Hughes Winborne). The band of artists worked together in the isolated town of Greenwood, MI to make the film and were all connected to the South in some way. “It helped that the town was 15 years behind, like Mayberry,” Davis says about their commitment to staying true to the story they wanted to tell. The film was a work from the heart. “We didn’t care about how it did,” she says about being surprised with the success of the film. With the story they had to tell and the brilliant band of artists telling it, it’s hard to imagine the film not being the success that it is. Davis has received two Academy Award nominations in the past for her work as costume designer for the films Ray and Dreamgirls. Her costume design for The Help is no doubt one of the most true and effective among the crop of films from this year.