Originally, director Guillermo del Toro told Luis Sequeira he wanted to film The Shape of Water in black and white.
“I started on this personal journey looking at textiles, photographing them in color, then in black and white,” revealed Sequeira. “I was on this really fascinating journey, and then they said, ‘Oh forget it! We’re doing it in color.’”
Although color was used, the film still had a black and white, afraid of the future, stuck-in-the-fifties, twilight zone type of world. Indeed, several color palettes were needed. With the director and production designer, Paul Austerberry, Sequeira picked out the colors and intensities of the hues so they could decide whether to use the clothing itself or desaturate the film to get the look they wanted.
Each location had its own environment, falling into one of four different color palettes. The world of Elisa’s apartment is very blue, so her color palette was cool and tonally in the green/cyan range with grays. Giles’ apartment was warm and woodsy, so his clothing was more in the brown, earthy range.
“We were all talking the same language,” stated Sequeira. “In some aspects of the film the clothes do kind of blend with the productions design. They pop out slightly. They are in the same tone, but either by the use of the fabric, or a little bit of a brighter tone, the characters pop up.”
The “lion’s share” of the clothing was constructed. For the gentlemen, they made hats, shirts, ties, shoes, overcoats and suits. For the ladies, they made hats, shoes and coats. Clothing from the 1950s was also modified for use. Because it was so different from the rest of the costumes in the film, Sequeira enjoyed creating the dream sequence dress, which was shot in black and white.
“It really was the coming together of all the fabrics and creating a palette of fabric and texture for each of the characters. Then working with some found pieces I redesigned specifically to the characters,” shared Sequeira. “We had stepping off points for each character.”
Giles (Richard Jenkins) was stuck in his heyday, so all his clothes were from the 1950s. Still meticulously kept, mended, ironed and pressed, but definitely from a bygone era. Vintage dresses were modified for Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who was so pleased with the wardrobe, she even suggested they do a line of 60s dresses. In order to create the proper silhouette, all of the ladies’ undergarments, such as the nylons, which were held up by garters or girdles, were appropriate to the period. The costume department also worked with the extras coordinator in dressing a core group of background actors that got reused in various scenes.
For the finale in the pouring rain, the costume team had to prepare multiple costumes for each character that had technical interlinings to keep the actors as dry and warm as possible. A lot of the footwear was made in vinyl so it could be soaking wet, while keeping the performers feet dry. They did faux rain effects on the shoulders to get a heightened sense of glistening.
During that time period, there was no fast fashion. The costume designer went to “rags houses and vintage shops” in big cities and small towns to curate a wardrobe collection of “beautiful pieces and interesting garments” for the film. For initial fittings, he had a “tickle trunk kind of thing” with pieces he and Guillermo liked, playing “Mister Dress-up” with the actors to see what worked or didn’t, including the color palette for each character. As the costumes evolved, the actors started to feel their characters.
Because he had to build so much “from scratch,” Sequeira had to bring what he needed into the shop from Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. The designer had 3000 different swatches in his fabric library. He had “incredible shoppers” that collected these disparate samples. One shopper almost exclusively bought fabric, buttons, trims and notions. Sequeira’s goal was all about creating the best design.
“It was amazing. I had these two racks full of fabrics on cards. They were divided between wools and cottons. We had a section that was the fantasy section. Starting from the textiles and bringing them together in different combinations for the different characters, then looking for the perfect buttons, ribbons and trims,” explained Sequeira. “Working with the hat makers to find the perfect color felt for the hats, it was just kind of a dream come true. I’d grown up and got to play.”