What does one wear to an extracurricular high school fight club? That was the assignment for costume designer Eunice Jera Lee when she signed on to Bottoms, director Emma Seligman's over-the-top comedy about queer high school outcasts who start a fight club in order to hook up with the popular cheerleaders.
The Korean-American costume designer got her start working on music videos for Madonna and Nicki Minaj, before serving as the designer for hyper-realistic projects like Gook and Blue Bayou, both from frequent collaborator Justin Chon, and Daniel Goldhaber's How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Bottoms gave Lee a chance to move back towards something more stylized.
"When you're designing, you really have to look at the project case by case. A lot of inspiration behind How to Blow Up a Pipeline was taken from photojournalism, and kids today who figure out ways of wearing different pieces of clothing and really making it their own and finding their independence with it," she says. "Whereas Bottoms, it's pure fantasy."
In the teen comedy, best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) avoid expulsion following an altercation with the school's star quarterback by offering to start a self-defense club. Under the guise of empowerment, the two scheme to get close to their crushes, Brittany and Isabel (Kaia Gerber and Havana Rose Liu, respectively). Like the movie itself, the costumes are ironic and subversive, campy and chic, both current and nostalgic.
Bottoms premiered at this year's SXSW Film & TV Festival, though by that time, Lee had already moved onto prepping her next project: Lee Isaac Chung's forthcoming Twister sequel. "The first time I saw Bottoms was in Oklahoma. They have a festival called deadCenter Fest, and a bunch of the actors on Twisters and the producers and such, we all went," she shares. "There was a lot of howling. There was a lot of laughter. To hear a reaction to a film in general is really exciting, and knowing that your work is a part of it, it's wonderful."
A.frame: When you think about your and Emma's early conversations, what was the sartorial vision for Bottoms?
The first time we sat down together, she shared a photo album of thousands of photos from films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Jennifer's Body, and I knew she wanted to create this camp fantasy taking from a lot of different films. I think she's quite a bit younger than me, but we grew up on the same films, strangely enough. I think film can do that — it can transcend periods — so we still had the same references. Like Clueless, for example, was huge. Heathers. And then she would bring in something like Bring It On and I'd bring in Fast Times [at Ridgemont High] or something. So, it was a beautiful marriage.
With something like Clueless, where the costumes are so iconic, are you looking for a certain vibe or inspiration to pull into your costumes, or to more directly homage it?
Well, in one of the earlier scenes where we first see them in a classroom, Isabel's wearing a yellow Argyle two-piece set and Brittany's wearing, like, a tank over a cropped, mock-neck turtleneck thing. That was taken from Clueless. I wanted to really bring in a sense of nostalgia. And because Clueless is so iconic and that yellow skirt suit is so iconic, I took that print and that color and flipped it on its head and turned it into something that was more Brittany. But it gave you a foreshadowing of what to expect from the film.
Bottoms exists in a world that is heightened and slightly surreal, but there is a lot, especially in the fashion, that also feels familiar. How do you balance that in the costumes?
It's funny, because as we were going through these references, the one thing that really intimidated me was being able to make sure that the sartorial aesthetic was cohesive but still incorporate all of the styles that they were inspired by. I didn't want to leave out significant references that were important to myself or Emma. But it was important for each character to have their own independence and style outside of one another, but also makes sense in this fictional town as one cohesive look. So, it was taking from a lot of the different decades and unifying them with this Y2K look.
What did your collaborative process look like with the actors themselves? Did any of them come with strong ideas of what their character would wear or what they were envisioning?
Yeah, definitely. We had conversations. I know Rachel sent me an email with some references of how she'd like to look when she was in the fight club, which are these tight little polo shirts with the track pants. I remember Kaia came in for our initial fitting, and the idea behind Isabel and Brittany was that they would be very synonymous with one another, like the girl gangs of the early aughts. But Kaia wanted to have a strong sense of individuality in herself, and she really envisioned herself as a darker character. So, I took a lot of the ideas that I had come with and I put a darker spin to them, whether it was utilizing more leather or finding prints or things that were cut out a bit more, finding less feminine colors to pair with other pieces that were in her closet.
The wrinkle in this project is that you also know some of these costumes are going to get very, very bloody. How does that affect your approach?
The scenes where there was any possibility of blood or for the final fight scene, we needed to make sure that multiples were possible. So, anything where multiples weren't possible, those had to be slotted into other scenes.
For that final battle scene, how many copies of each costume did you need?
No less than five, but I think each person had about eight. Because you still need to keep at least two of them clean, in case we need to go back to it. Of course, this blood is movie blood, so you know it comes out, but that's not necessarily always true — especially on white cheerleading uniforms. So, we needed to make sure we had enough and that each stage of blood had a multiple as well.
This is a movie that rewards a rewatch, because every department has added in so many bonkers details that you might not notice on first viewing. Are there any details in the costumes that you're particularly pleased with that people should look out for?
You know what's really funny is that I included these Best Friends necklaces, and Ayo and Rachel are such prolific actors, their improv is so impeccable, and at the very end when they come back together and Ayo pulls out her best friend's necklace — it was never written into the script. She just kind of highlighted that piece in a way that I never expected them to. It was just supposed to be this kind of Easter egg of when they're wearing them and when they're not. But I think now that's become a significant part of the film, which is so wonderful 'cause I love when actors use their wardrobe to further their characters. And actually some of Marshawn [Lynch's] tracksuits, we had them customized and put 'Coach' across the back, but I don't think you ever see it in the film.
Something you do see though, I'm almost ashamed to admit it took me probably the full movie to truly appreciate, is the mascot uniform in its entirety. What was it like building that?
Yeah, he's great. He's a wonderful mascot. [Laughs] I didn't realize until the second showing that we got to see the mascot in his full glory, but I'm glad that it's there. That was written in the script, and it was really important to Emma to signify the blatant misogyny in the town. That something so phallic and disruptive in society, it's actually just out there and it's just a normal part of their everyday lives, to have that massive erect penis in your face on a plush little fuzzy mascot.
It's funny, because I got the fabricator from SNL and I was describing this mascot to him, and we got to the very end of our conversation and I said, 'Oh, by the way, this is really important but he needs to have a human penis and balls attached to him.' And he was like, 'Is this some kind of a prank call? Is this a joke?' I went, 'No, no, no. I'm very serious,' and he went, 'Okay, gotcha.' Didn't skip a beat. And I was picking out colors for his member the following week. It was very fun.
Do you remember when it first arrived on set?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] My supervisor called me and said, 'It's here, and I'm going to put it on the truck.' We were so excited, and we ran over to the truck first thing in the morning. Oh my gosh. The unveiling was incredible. It's like this huge head and then you pull out this body and it's got this massive erect penis attached to it. It was perfect. And I remember sending a photo to Emma and you could hear her gasp through the text. She was like, 'Oh my God, it's amazing! It's perfect!'
By John Boone