Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Michael Kaplan - How I dressed the movie stars for success

He's designed film costumes for everyone from Cher to Spock. Here, Michael Kaplan reveals how clothes convey a character

Friday 22 July 2011 00:00 BST

One of the most impressive CVs in Hollywood is that belonging to the costume designer Michael Kaplan. Not only has he designed some of the most iconic costumes on film – he worked on films as diverse as Blade Runner, Tough Guys Don't Dance and Burlesque – he is also credited with creating the off-the-shoulder sweat-top style that become a 1980s look after the release of Flashdance. His work across the genres is stunning, covering futurist film noir, Second World War battles, comedies, detective stories, musicals and more.

His first job was working on The Sonny and Cher Show as a sketch artist for the costume department but his big movie break came on Blade Runner working with the British costume designer Charles Knode, for which he won a Bafta. However, the film flopped in the US and it was Flashdance that had other directors calling him to see if he could start another fashion craze.

When J J Abrams was looking for someone to help modernise the Star Trek costumes, he met with stiff resistance from Kaplan, who at first argued that he wasn't a Trekkie and so wasn't qualified to take the job. Abrams thought otherwise and Kaplan repaid the confidence by creating a modern look that found favour with the most ardent fans. He's worked with David Fincher four times and on the same number of occasions with Brad Pitt, and most recently has been designing the costumes for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, starring Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner.

Here, he chooses the seven defining costuming choices of his career.

Sean Young's entrance as Rachael

Blade Runner

I think my favourite costume in the movie is the one we see the first time we see Rachael. It's a black suit with big shoulders and it's so dramatic. It's a situation where everything came together: the hair, the make-up, her posture, and Ridley Scott – he operated his own camera, and the way he shot that scene with the owl was and still is an amazing entrance for an actress. We based the ideas for the costumes on the film noir period of the 1930s and 1940s but exaggerated the clothes, so that it was a bit of a whacked-out take on the 1940s that pushed the clothes into the future. We exaggerated the shoulders so that the shoulder pads had nothing to do with the way they did things in the 1940s, but it still had that film noir feeling that we were looking for.

Jennifer Beals in sweat top and leotard


I use the script as a blueprint. I'm reading about this young woman named Alex. She is a welder by day and a dancer at night; she longs to take ballet class and reads fashion magazines. Taking these elements, I thought she can't wear silk as she's a construction worker, so a sweatshirt felt right. It's Pittsburgh, it's cold and I guess the sweatshirt idea stemmed from me thinking about what she would wear to work. You'd wear sweat clothes because they are cheap and you'd throw them in the washing machine, but because she was fashionable maybe she would personalise it and cut it up. I used to go to art school, I went to see Pennsylvania ballet company and sketch very romantically the ballet classes, and I noticed that the dancers would cut their warm-up clothes so that they could move with more freedom to dance. I figure who the character is and I create clothes for them even taking their economic bracket into consideration, how much they earn and things like that.

Eileen Brennan as Mrs Peacock


I try to make clothes interesting for the moviegoer and Eileen Brennan was playing the character in a very nervous way. I gave her a hat that had very little tiny features on it and whenever she would move the feathers would keep swaying. She was Mrs Peacock so I put feathers in her hat, even though the director, Jonathan Lynn, didn't want to do that because she was Mrs Peacock and he gave me notes stipulating that he didn't want her to wear peacock blue and that he didn't want Mrs White to be in white. We still wanted to give them clothes that captured the essence of their name even though we weren't being very literal about it.



There wasn't that much time and there were hundreds of costumes. Each girl needed shoes for each dance number, the shoes were custom made in Italy, all the clothes were made for each girl, we had one small workshop and it was like doing 10 Broadway shows at once – it was crazy. I had no sleep. I didn't want to just put any clothes on the dancers, but you had complications all the time. When the girls put their shoes on, some would say my feet hurt or I can't wear these shoes, so then we would say, you change shoes with another girl. We had to send shoes back to Italy, or try and buy a similar shoe in a department store and paint it. Plus, when you make dance costumes they have to move without tearing – they have to be able to stand up.

Angelina Jolie

Mr and Mrs Smith

I love Angie, Angelina Jolie. She was really very tough at first. She is the kind of person that really doesn't trust anyone until she gets to know you and the first few months were rough but once I proved myself to her it was put it on and lets do it. She is the kind of person, I don't know if it was about my choices, she is just a person who is resistant, if I said black she said white, she just has that kind of personality which I really like, she is a strong woman.

Brad Pitt

Fight Club

He's very easy going, very laid-back, he's fun, he's funny, loves clothes, loves to collaborate and he doesn't just want to wear anything. He is clear who the character is and that is important to me and we have a great professional relationship. In Fight Club, his character had no money, he was living in a house that didn't belong to him and his clothes couldn't be fancy. I decided he was going to be a person who gets great things in thrift shops, because I do that and I know they can be found. The problem was that we needed multiples – I couldn't just go to a thrift store and buy him a great leather jacket because of the fighting scenes and stunt doubles. We needed maybe 12 of the jackets. I made his clothes and found this old, hard leather base they used to make jackets out of in the 1970s – it's almost like car upholstery, not like the soft, buttery leather they use now. I had it dyed and I wanted it to be the colour of dried blood. We designed it and fashioned it after the way clothes were made then but it looked like it was from a thrift shop – we broke some buttons, tore the lining and put stains on it to make it look like something somebody wouldn't want anymore.

Apple TV+ logo

Watch Apple TV+ free for 7 days

New subscribers only. £8.99/mo. after free trial. Plan auto-renews until cancelled

Try for free
Apple TV+ logo

Watch Apple TV+ free for 7 days

New subscribers only. £8.99/mo. after free trial. Plan auto-renews until cancelled

Try for free

Leonard Nimoy

Star Trek (2010 reboot)

One of the costumes I'm most proud of is the hood that old Spock wears, which is kind of a fur-lined hood. It's a kind of cold-weather Parka. I didn't want him to just wear a normal hood, it's Spock after all and it's in the future. I wanted it to be really special. So we see him from the back for the first time and he has this orb, it's a round, leather sphere on his head, and he turns around and that is his hood, but he wasn't going to wear the hood for the whole sequence so I had to find a way to make the hood collapse and turn into a collar. I drew it first and and then I figured out how it had to be made. At first we felt we can't do that, it's impossible, but it worked and so sometimes I think it's best to design something first and then figure out how to make it after.

Michael Kaplan was talking to Kaleem Aftab

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in