When costume designer Jenny Eagan joined Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” she did her own kind of location scouting. Set in Chicago, the drama features a sprawling cast of characters from all corners of the Windy City whose clothing tells you a lot about where they come from.
“I took my own scout, going to each of the neighborhoods that we were actually going to film in and where the script thought they were living. So I could see what was going on and get to know Chicago a little bit,” Eagan said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Costume Designers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above). “I wanted to understand and get to talk to the neighborhood and people, and it was wonderful. It was really an eye-opener for the story [McQueen] wanted to tell.”
For its main character, Veronica (Viola Davis) — who recruits her fellow widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) to pull off a heist to pay off crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) after their husbands are killed — her sophisticated all-white pantsuits reflected her power position within the group. Eagan, who’s worked on “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) and “Hostiles” (2017), drew inspiration from the power-dressing women of TV, which includes Davis’ character Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away with Murder.”
“[Veronica] was from the teacher’s union, but there was a little bit of her house and her apartment. We wanted to meld that together and show that she had some money,” Eagan shared. “And we wanted to keep it simple because Viola herself is such a powerful actress in character, so I wanted to keep it very structured, very simple. We reused things again and again for her at multiple changes so that it didn’t feel like she had this extensive wardrobe. She wasn’t a woman that was all about her clothes. … I remember thinking to myself, what would a woman wear that I couldn’t wear that I would be intimidated by, and that’s definitely white. I can’t go outside in white. It would be a mess!”
Veronica’s arc in the film is also mirrored in her clothing, which becomes black by the end after some devastating secrets are revealed. Similarly, Alice’s and Linda’s styles evolved as well. At first reluctant to jump on board Veronica’s plan, they both wore dresses, but those soon morphed into more practical jeans and jackets for heist-plotting.
“I also wanted it to feel like maybe Veronica had a little influence on each of them, showing a little more confidence,” Eagan said. “And also, especially Alice, she didn’t have to feel like she was trying to portray someone she wasn’t, being a woman to gain access to something or get what she needed. It became more relaxed. It was definitely to get the job. It was more practical for sure.”
One of the biggest laughs in the film comes when Alice, fresh off a date as an escort, walks into the widows’ meeting spot in a gold Herve Leger bandage dress that Linda likens to a condom.
“That was ad-libbed by Michelle,” Eagan revealed. “I wanted it to feel like it was something maybe her mom (Jackie Weaver) had bought her. She wouldn’t have been able to afford it; she didn’t have the money. And what could Elizabeth wear, so striking and beautiful that she is, that would be so revealing or so obnoxious? It was kind of what she thought and what her mother thought that the potential man that she was entering into this evening with might find appropriate. So I thought it was a little tacky and a little off. That became hilarious when Michelle ad-libbed that moment.”
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