ARTICLE: ‘Water for Elephants’ costume designer Jacqueline West talks to Vogue

Here’s an excerpt from with Water for Elephants costume designer, Jacqueline West, discussing her inspiration and challenges preparing for the period piece.

Costume designer Jacqueline West talks about her work in the new film Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

Where did you look for inspiration for the costumes in Water for Elephants?
I looked in many places: I watched so many 1930s films like Polly of the Circus, Dinner at Eight and Red Dust. There was also a fabulous book by [Edward J] Kelty, called Step Right This Way, in which he documented 1920s and 30s circus life at rest and at play. Depression photographer [Mike] Disfarmer was also a wonderful inspiration for the 1930s circus ‘rubes’ or circus-goers. And Sara Gruen’s book [on which the film is based], of course, with her vivid descriptions of a romantic but difficult life in a Depression-era circus.

Sketch by Jacqueline West

What was the biggest challenge?
It was realistically portraying through the costumes the contrast between the austerity of the Depression circus-goers and the glitzy glamour of the circus performers.

Did you include genuine articles of vintage clothes?
I did. Most of the ‘rubes’ were dressed in genuines from head to toe, from boater to spectators. I sourced mostly from United American Costume in North Hollywood and the Western Costume Company and its Dykeman-Young collection. And an old friend of mine uncovered a stash of genuine 1930s circus costumes in a warehouse in California and brought them to me just in time. The wardrobe gods at work again!

Did you collaborate with hair and make-up on this film? What was that process?
It was a brilliant collaboration with Jean Black and Frída Aradóttir, make-up and hair. I’ve worked with Jean a lot. We tried to follow all the research and make everything as real as possible.

Where did the jewellery come from?
Mostly rental but we made some. Marlena’s [Witherspoon’s character] bangles came from Palace Costume and so did the paste clips on her dresses. Her bangles were inspired by the French muse Renée Perle, who was loved and photographed by Jean-Henri Lartigue.

Sketch by Jacqueline West

How much did the book help you?
It all started with Sara’s book. It set the mood for me in dressing the characters. I’m very character driven and Ms Gruen painted such vivid, complex characters that they became so real for me, they almost dressed themselves. For an actor, getting into character can come down to finding the right shoes.

How closely do you work with actors?
Reese was very involved with creating a look for Marlena with [director] Francis [Lawrence] and me. We watched 30s films together and pored over hundreds of stills. She studied women’s postures, stances, body language. They even smoked differently. Rob [Pattinson] was wonderful in that way too.

Which of Reese Witherspoon’s glamorous looks is your favourite, and why?
I think it was the red dress. Those bias-cut evening gowns from this period are one of my favourite fashion looks of all time. They are constructed from one point on a woman’s body and the front and back must be in perfect balance from there. They are so slinky and must be worn without undergarments. To be perfect they must reveal all the most beautiful parts of the feminine form without really revealing anything at all. The fabric was silk satin from France with the perfect drape, and it had to be just the right red.

Sketch by Jacqueline West

And now I want to see the film again! :) You can read the full article and see a few more photos at 

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4 Responses to ARTICLE: ‘Water for Elephants’ costume designer Jacqueline West talks to Vogue

  1. cj says:

    costumes for this fim were beautiful, all of them! but, i was most enchanted by the rings worn by Reese Witherspoon’s character.. a white, oval ring being one of them.. how could i go about finding out more about them?

  2. elle says:

    I LOOOOVVED this movie. Can’t believe I only just saw it last week (wanted to read the book first but never got around to that but it is on my nightstand now). The circus was just such a magical world and how fun it must have been to be on the wardrobe or research teams for this movie. Love all the vintage finds but also how they combined it with more modern looks (like the dresses Reese wore) or maybe those are just back in fashion again?? My wedding dress was also cut on the bias like the red one. Loved the simplicity or it.

  3. Pamela Taylor says:

    Loved the movie and all of the dresses Reece wore. I would like to purchace one like the black dress, are they anyone that has made replica’s of this dress for the public???

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