Bite me, Baz: Melissa Heller talks Designing Costumes Without A Billion $ Budget

melissa hellerScrew you, Baz.

This is all I could think when I watched the recent rendition of “The Great Gatsby” in all of it’s stunning glory.The story changes, the character development aside, the movie was a thing of beauty and it was both a joy, and crushing to watch. I thought to myself, “I can’t possibly live up to this. People will be watching and comparing every pearl, every pair of shoes, every tie pin to my version.”

I had a minor breakdown.

But that is just silly.  It’s not the point to make a Catherine Martin knock-off.  It’s not the point to make my budget (roughly the same amount as what Warner Bros. must have spent on the muffin table) come close to covering the visual ground that they did. The point is not more rhinestones. (Don’t get me wrong, it could probably use as many rhinestones as I can throw at the thing….) Nonetheless, none of this is important, albeit pretty. I will tell you the point after…

Backing up a little, here is a brief history lesson on the period. Women were real flat. Or at least, the fashion rags wanted them to be. Funny how we perceive this as being a very recent issue. It existed long before Photoshop did.


The Ideal:                                                   The Reality:




The fact is that 1920s fashion on a live body, with actual dimensions, looks a little funny to our modern eye. One of the challenges of costuming a period piece is that I have to balance three factors – what people expect/hope to see, what the actual reality of the era was, and what I (or we, the artistic team) want to parade around. That balance, and where it sometimes tips, depends on what message the show is attempting to send. There will always be purists (aka party poopers) that will spend the whole show picking apart the construction methods of the pleating, or scrutinizing the collar styling of the jackets. *cough-I-do-that-sometimes-cough*… That is another fine example of what is not the point of this show.

So here is what is actually the point of the show (as promised). This is a classic tale that happens to be told in the 1920s, not one about the 1920s. Back me up here, Megan Wilkerson… the whole set is made up of about three chairs and a dock….(I am, of course, mostly joking here – the set design is brilliantly minimalist.)

Anyway, this means I can be a little more free in the interpretation of the visual story, a little more adventurous with the styling, a little more irreverent with the treatment of a very free, adventurous, and irreverent time period.  That may mean I need to be a little more resourceful and thoughtful in sourcing quasi-roaring 20s pieces to smash together than I would if the point was a stitch-perfect 1925 lesson about historical fashion.

But, it’s not.


Melissa Heller
Costume Designer
The Great Gatsby