Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: Analysing the costume design and use of colour in Tarantino's film

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an unabashed love letter to Los Angeles, Hollywood, the '60s and so much more. It’s about a middle-aged '50s television star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they struggle to stay relevant in an increasingly changing Hollywood landscape — and said changing landscape is showcased in the film's costume design, which is dominated by bright colours and earthy hues. The film opens with a promo of the Rick Dalton starrer Bounty Law, a hit 50′s show which is reminiscent of numerous Westerns that dominated television in that decade. The costuming for that entire promo is pretty similar to what cowboy heroes of that time used to wear - lots of brown, leather and fringe.

 Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: Analysing the costume design and use of colour in Tarantinos film

But the actual first look we get of the characters as themselves tells us everything we need to know about them as people. Rick is an actor who comes from an era when things were more black and white. After playing the traditional masculine hero for over a decade, he has now been stereotyped as a villain after unsuccessfully trying to transition into film. A self-absorbed actor (even if he is a has-been) always has a polished appearance. Their clothes are always wrinkle-free and everything about Rick Dalton’s appearance is smooth, like he just stepped out of the human-shining place.
Meanwhile, Cliff’s first look reveals the classic all-American rugged man. He clearly doesn’t care much about his appearance as long as he is comfortable. Even his worn out matte pair of shoes are a good indicator of this. Also, the introduction shots of these two men are interspersed with shots of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski arriving at the airport, and their costumes alone create a thread of connectivity that would eventually tie these four people together. She is sporting a luxurious brown fur coat, while Polanski’s outfit is a mix of both blue and brown. This straight-up connects the couple with our leads who we know end up saving Tate in the film's conclusion. The colour, in itself, signify stability and security. While Tate-Polanski are shown as the power couple of Hollywood, the colour holds an altogether different meaning to Rick, who is trying his best to cling to the little relevancy he has left in the town.

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As the only “female lead” of the film, let’s take a moment to discuss Sharon Tate’s three main looks. The character quite famously doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie, except for being pretty, happy and just all around a ray of sunshine; and all of that has been captured in the outfits. Yellow is obviously a very positive color and one that is largely associated with California. As Tate in real life too had a bit of that Boho-chic to her, her trendy clothes historically makes sense. There isn’t much to analyse in her costumes because Arianna Phillips, the costume designer, made the outfits to be quite similar to what Tate wore in real life. It is pretty much just a homage.



The majority of the movie is basically a day-in-the-life of our two male leads and once again, you’d find yellow playing a major role here, keeping both the men rooted to Los Angeles. Although this is also the day that has Rick going through a serious emotional roller-coaster as he is asked to change his ‘look’ for the first time in his career and that is immediately succeeded by a nine-year-old method actress telling him about work ethic. One thing to note about Rick Dalton’s looks until now is that it has a classic 60s vibe about it. He obviously hasn’t moved with time and his styling choices are an example of that. Between leather jackets, ‘R’ monogrammed pinky ring and medallion pendant, Rick’s look is one of cliched 60′s cowboy actors.

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Coming to Cliff’s look, which is an instant classic, perfectly encapsulates his whole personality and aura. The ensemble that features a bright Hawaiian shirt over a faded Champion t-shirt and jeans captured the essence of his character, which is of a laid-back person who doesn’t care much about his appearance but still instantly attracts attention once he walks into a room. Also, Cliff is a person whose thinking is somewhere in the middle of the transitioning time — not as old-school, but not a complete hippie either — and that middle ground is showcased in this attire nicely.
After the time jump, a bunch of information is thrown at the audience including the fact that Rick eventually got married after traveling to Italy to shoot a bunch of Spaghetti Westerns. Another piece of information we receive is of him letting Cliff go as he cannot afford him anymore. It’s clear that this discussion is taking place between a shot because both of them are wearing same clothes. They are literally playing the same person when it’s being decided that their partnership is coming to an end.

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After arriving in LA, the first look we get of Rick is at the airport and in just a couple of months, it is clear that he has shown a willingness to change. He is sporting the top trends of the time, which were as cringey as they were cool. From the hairstyle to jacket, it’s all leaning to early 70s.

That evening, Rick and Cliff go out for their last “bro night” and while Cliff doesn’t change out of his white jacket and pants, Rick steps out wearing a half-sleeved printed t-shirt with the pastel shades of green and pink with pastel pink pants. A very 70s look, something the Rick Dalton from the start of the movie would have scoffed at. Not to mention, the colours are very melancholic, setting the mood for the night.
Around midnight, when all hell breaks loose, a completely drunk Rick is chilling in his pool listening to music, sporting a heavily printed shirt that basically captured the utter chaos of the night. But in the last scene of the film, where he gives his testimony to the police, tells Cliff that he is a great friend and finally gets to meet Sharon Tate, he is back in his pastel shades from earlier that night, which gets a more romantic subtext this time around. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is set at a time when America was at the cusp of a cultural change — politically and socially — and the fashion trends of that era are perfectly captured in the film. It made people question their roots and who they really were as people. So, while Cliff Booth embodied the ideal American man that is manly, effortless and everything cool - basically someone Rick Dalton played on-screen for decades, Rick captured the essence of being your own person by daring to change. Rick Dalton had a hard time moving with time and has a very old-school way of thinking (something that will undoubtedly stay with him), but by the end of the film, going by his clothes and plans, as afraid he may be of the future, he is definitely ready to move forward.

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(All images courtesy Sony Pictures)