The story of Eilis Lacey, as portrayed beautifully by Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, is the story of someone letting go of an old life and choosing to build a new one from the ground up. It’s about being presented specific choices, knowing that your decision will determine the entire course of your life. It’s about how something can look one way from one perspective and entirely another way from a different perspective. All of this – every single bit of it – is reflected and retold quite clearly in the costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, who clearly and consistently tells the tale of Eilis’ journey from girl to woman, from foreigner to native, from outsider to insider.
First, let’s start with the most obvious and clear of the first motifs in the film: Green = Ireland.
Color will play a very important role in Eilis’ costumes, revolving largely around the themes of “home” vs. “here,” or future vs. past, or even potential husband vs. potential husband. But color will also make connections to specific characters in addition to signaling Eilis’ own emotional state. This green coat is featured very prominently in the first third of the film, signaling her own Irishness and subsequent homesickness for Ireland so strongly that she’s even dressed in the green, white and orange of the Irish flag to drive that point home. She almost literally arrives on American shores dressed in the colors of her homeland. This motif will be flipped quite neatly later in the film.
Next to the green coat, no garment is as heavily laden with specific meaning as this short-sleeved blue cable-knit sweater. It is quite clearly and consistently tagged to her sister Rose. She wears it during her last dinner at home, when her mother fusses over her lack of clothes and Rose waves her off by noting that Eilis will be able to buy plenty of clothes in America. This is prophetic because Eilis will, in fact, eventually sport a bold new American wardrobe that will draw a distinct line between her Irish life and her American one. But it’s also ironic, because she will continue to wear this sweater quite a bit, most notably in scenes where she reads her sister’s letters. And finally, there’s a color connection at play, since it mimics the color of the coat Rose wears the last time Eilis ever sees her.
But her arrival in America will also spur on a sharp change in her wardrobe, fueled by two clear and obvious influences.
All the women who work at Bartocci’s department store dress like the floor manager, Miss Fortini, played with snooty officiousness by Jessica Pare. The stark black-and-white dress code not only gives these scenes a crisp formality that set them apart from most of the rest of the film, but they also have the slight whiff of a religious order about them, which is ironic, since Eilis left a country where becoming a nun was one of her best options. Note the way Eilis’ look switches from the droopy girlishness of her homesick early days to the crisp, mature officiousness of her look after she meets Tony.
But even more influential than her job is her friendship with the other girls in the boarding house, specifically the more overtly and flashily stylish ones. Each scene at the boarding house table is a costume design symphony rendered in bright colors, mid-Century feminine detailing, and competing necklines:
Note how prim and old-fashioned Eilis tends to look in comparison to most of them. She’s not someone who’s easily swayed. The whole film is about her very slowly coming to some basic decisions about her life while she displays an ambiguity throughout most of it, after all. Our point here is that, while these stylish and fast-talking women clearly came to have an influence on Eilis’ style, which is about to become much bolder, she didn’t take any obvious cues from any of them. She merely found a way to remain true to herself, except in slightly bolder or more modern ways.
For instance, her post-meeting Tony/looking to the future wardrobe is signaled by the sudden disappearance of her green coat, with its clear and obvious ties to home …
For this bold red jacket. She wears it first when she leaves the church Christmas dinner held for the old Irish men without homes and families; a dinner that leaves her sad and wistful, but with a sharp illustration of what lies ahead for her if she doesn’t shake off her ties to the past. She also wears it several times while Tony walks her home and she becomes emboldened enough to flirt with him, suddenly speaking more than she ever had up until that point in the film. With her ties to Ireland and her past fading, as represented by the disappearance of green in her wardrobe, she is becoming emboldened and forward-thinking, like the image she has of Americans.
And like her brief moment of literally wearing the Irish flag as she steps onto American soil, her new boldness and forward-thinking, expresses itself …
… in plain and clear red, white and blue. She is becoming more at home in what she’s starting to think of as her new home.
Which isn’t to say echoes of Ireland aren’t still to be found in her life:
Mrs. Kehoe’s nearly ever-present green sweater is there to remind her of the old ways, just as Miss Kelly’s green sweater serves to remind her of those same old ways and small-town thinking, which is largely what prompted her to leave in the first place. “I’d forgotten what this town could be like,” Eilis spits at her angrily in this scene. And green shows up in Eilis’ wardrobe again when she speaks to her mother on the phone after her sister’s funeral; a scene loaded with sorrow for a past that can’t be reclaimed and a distance that has become unbearable.
But just as certain costumes and color motifs have definite ties to specific points of view, others are deliberately ambiguous, or used to illustrate several opposing points of view or emotional states.
Take Eilis’ beach ensemble:
She wears it to Coney Island with Tony, after several scenes in which her preparedness for the event was questioned by several women around her, from her boarding school friends to her boss. It was clearly a newly purchased, of-the-moment stylish, and highly curated look, sweater to shoes, with bathing suit to match. She wears most of the ensemble again when she goes to the beach with Jim and her friends in Ireland. It is both her “beach ensemble” in her mind, but also her “Which life am I going to lead” ensemble; a question which is answered the third time she wears it, when she surprises Tony on the street after coming home from Ireland. “This is where your life is,” she says at the film’s close, while wearing this symbol of her choice.
The blue dress, like so many of her outfits, also represents the choices being set out in front of her. She wears it when Tony offers her an entire life on Long Island, as the wife of a contractor who is likely going to end the decade fairly wealthy (although neither of them are assured of this at the time). She wears it again when she literally sits in her dead sister’s chair and literally ties up her loose ends, thereby receiving an offer to continue her work. And later, when she comes home to the news that Jim has called. Practically everything she wears in the film travels this trajectory, from her family of origin/the past, to the various branching offers of a family of her choosing. Each ensemble asks if she will embrace the future or look to the past.
Like the yellow motif:
Yellow expresses itself first as a hopeful, forward-looking color as Eilis notes her first spring in America, which brings the realization that her homesickness has ended now that she’s in love. She wears it to proudly present her college grades to Father Flood, with the news that she has enough money to continue her education. But she also wears a yellow blouse when she mourns her sister with Tony and the same yellow dress when she visits her sister’s grave. That dress appears again when she meets Jim’s parents and she inadvertently gives them the impression that she’s got marriage plans on her mind. Another costume motif that follows the same emotional trajectory Eilis does: from Tony to Rose to Jim. The same push-pull of the past and the future.
Other outfits are merely starkly binary, leaving her sister out of the equation:
She wears the same outfit on her first dates with Tony and with Jim. With Tony, she’s talkative and bubbly; with Jim she’s tentative and a little more formal.
Later, when she’s attending her friend’s wedding and the social and familial pressure for her to return home and settle down has started to reach a fever pitch…
She wears something that can only be called out of character for her. It’s stylish, of course. Everything she wears when she returns to Ireland is just slightly more stylish and colorful than anyone else’s clothes – and this is commented on more than once. Look how boldly it stands out next to her mother’s sensible suit or Jim’s over-sized one. It’s also extremely feminine and conventional for the time. The quintessential Good Girl outfit for a girl whose head is being spun by all the positive attention she’s getting. And it’s interesting to contrast it with her own wedding ensemble:
While some costumes are deliberately ambiguous in order to reflect Eilis’ own indecision and conflicting feelings, other costumes are so starkly declarative in tone that they can only mean one thing. She gets married in this stylish and grown-up orange suit, presenting herself as an adult woman taking serious charge of her life for the first time in the film. She wears it again on her trip home to be with Tony, serving as the mentor to the stand-in for the young girl she once was. There is no ambiguity to this costume or what it means.
Nor is there any subtlety of meaning when she wears white:
In the scene where she has dinner with Tony’s family, she wears a white sweater as she’s inadvertently offered a life as his wife when he slips up and makes mention of the kids he plans to have with her. Later, she wears a white sweater when Miss Kelly tries to shame her into admitting her marriage to Tony, a scene which ends with her standing and declaring, “My name is Eilis Fiorello.” She wears the same sweater when she has to break her mother’s heart by admitting to her marriage and revealing that she’s leaving to be with her husband. She may not have worn a traditional bridal gown when she got married, but this motif of wearing white while being asked about and then accepting her marriage was distinctly bridal in tone. With Tony, it means “Do you?” and in each subsequent wearing, it clearly means “I do.” Like virtually every costume or costume motif in the film, it asks her what her choice will be and gives her the opportunity to respond with conviction. Each motif and costume moves from indecision to firm decision.
[Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo/Fox Searchlight]
Pop Style Opinionfest: She Works Hard for the Money Next Post:
Friday Leftovers for the Week of March 25th, 2018