In Conversation with Lady Bird’s Costume Designer On Authenticity, High School, and the Thrill of Thrifting

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s stunning directorial debut, is a quietly potent love letter to many things all at once: sleepy small towns, the halcyon sweetness of the social media-free early 2000’s, the fierce complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and the restless rollercoaster of euphoria and heartbreak that is teenage girlhood. Most of all, the achingly relatable coming of age story, which stars the luminous Saoirse Ronan as the titular character, is a nostalgia-inducing portrait of youth, in all its emotional intensity and hopeful uncertainty and bittersweet contradictions, chronicling the various colorful ways we stumble towards self discovery, from rebellion to heartbreak to moving away from home, only to realize where you’re from stays with you wherever you go.

For those somehow unfamiliar with Lady Bird (stop what you’re doing and go see it right now), which swept Oscar season with five nominations, including Best Picture, the film follows Christine McPherson, a senior at an all girls Catholic high school, who prefers to be called by her given name, Lady Bird (“It’s given to me, by me”) as she wades through the wide gulf between childhood and adulthood, determined to assert her independence and leave her small life in her small hometown of Sacramento behind. We witness her fumble exuberantly through typical teenage rites of passage – applying for college, falling in love, getting her heart broken, having sex, trying to fit in with the popular crowd, going to prom – yet these scenes are unexpectedly poignant and infused with liveliness, void of cliche and underscored with wide-eyed honesty and raw authenticity. It makes you want to call your mom and retroactively apologize for your teenage self, who knew what she wanted but had no idea how to get it. Visually and emotionally, the film moves like a memory come to life, hazy and soft-edged, swinging wildly between thrilling and triggering, mapping out the messy yet undeniably magical process of growing up female.

Stylistically, the film is a homage to a specific place and time: Sacramento, which Gerwig refers to as “the Midwest of California,” and the early 2000’s. The deeply personal story is bolstered by an unwavering attention to detail, from the soundtrack to the cinematography to the costumes. In many ways, the clothing in the film illustrates the coming of age story better than anything else, with Lady Bird’s eclectic, decade-defying style highlighting her fierce individuality in a way that rings true. Her sartorial choices evolve as she sheds layers of herself, trying on new personas, desperate to establish an identity that somehow both stands out and fits in. Finding your look is an critical part of growing up, and Lady Bird handles that sometimes painful truth with gentle reverence and humor. We chatted with Lady Bird‘s costume designer, April Napier, who has been in the industry for almost 30 years, about where she drew inspiration for Lady Bird’s iconic looks, the importance of authenticity in film, and her best tips for thrifting in LA.


Live FAST: Hi April! What does a typical work day look like for you?

April Napier: Touching a thousand articles of clothing. A million decisions a day, and a million cups of tea.

LF: Lady Bird feels like a love letter to many things – to growing up in a small town like Sacramento, to the halcyon days of the early 2000’s, to the simultaneous joy and pain that accompanies being a teenager – what role does clothing play in expressing that? 

AN: Lady Bird was such a joy to design. I am so grateful I got to be a part of it. Greta is the most inspired leader. I think that clothing plays quite a role in Lady Bird’s voice. I feel so lucky that the film was set prior the the interwebs invasion. It is such a lucky thing to be free from the influence of it. High school is such an amazing and painful and remarkable time to journey through the discovery of self. Making mistakes can be the greatest teacher, and being free is the greatest gift. I feel like Lady Bird was so authentic, curious and fearless in striking out and truly understanding her own identity… to herself, with her mother, and with her sexuality. Each of her decisions for choosing her clothing ring true. And then there are all the other characters around her who are identified by how they wear their school uniforms and what “group” they identify with. Each of them is making choices, too.

LF: Stylistically, how did you approach costuming a film that was rooted in such a specific time period and specific phase of life?

AN: For the general feeling of 2002, Greta [Gerwig] gave me a box of photographs from her high school days. It was such a gift to have candid references that were not media based, not from magazines or films. They were real images of history. It was important to me that the words and the story, which were so honest, be supported by truth in the costumes. Also, from the beginning Greta emphasized that Sacramento is always a little bit behind the times. It’s like the Midwest of California, so that introduced using clothes from the late 1990’s as well. But then, Lady Bird herself, as she was written, had the opportunity to be outside of ANY period because she was so unique and individual. She wears some things that were from the period, but she also embraced thrift store clothes which were specific to an event she was about to attend, or what appealed to her outside of where she was and what era it was. I remember doing the same thing in high school, so it felt very familiar.

LF: Tell us a little about the process of developing Lady Bird’s looks. Who or what did you pull inspiration from? 

AN: It is important to get into the character – into the mind of Lady Bird. When she is selecting her audition dress, she might think, “What would a Bob Fosse character wear?” For Thanksgiving at Danny’s she might wonder, “What would Jackie O. wear?” For the prom, I remember Greta suggesting the pink color and we looked at a reference from Annie Potts from Pretty in Pink, but worn in a very punk rock way. In general, we always knew she was independent and authentic. She is fearless in her self discovery, and questioned who she was. She was very diligent in her process of self discovery. It made me think of Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Patti Smith… Female pioneers of the time. And I love the book A Scene in Between, about the music of the late 1980s & early 1990s, but also timeless. Bands like The Marine Girls, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and The Pastels. Even though the era was different, the sentiment felt right.

LF: Lady Bird’s look is grounded in self-expression and fierce individuality – it’s almost like she’s costuming herself, trying out new looks and the new identities that go with them. Do you have a favorite outfit of hers? 

AN: I’m always partial to her audition dress. The other day I was asking my assistant on the film, Coral, what her favorite look is, and she said the outfit Lady Bird wears after she has sex with Kyle, when she is in a plaid skirt, a knit cream button up polo sweater and wearing Jenna’s pink Juicy hoodie, because it is so subtle and real. I think that is the beauty of her costumes. They are highly stylized, of course, but also it was crucial that they be effortless and real. We only used vintage clothes, and didn’t construct anything. I rarely use new clothes because I feel, with vintage, the patina of time and the way they have hung on people’s bodies imbue the clothes with the right authenticity.

LF: Many of the emotionally charged scenes involving Lady Bird and her mother Marion, from heartbreaking moments to bickering fights, center around shopping or clothing. Do you think that plays a role in making the mother-daughter scenes so relatable? It certainly transported me right back to my own teenage years.

AN: So many people say that! Mother-daughter relationships are so delicate and complicated and painful and wonderful and fraught with tension. We are always trying to love and support each other, and constantly failing. And it’s ok. I think that’s why the film is resonating so much. Every mother and every daughter knows this story. Greta made a universally true film and it’s so wonderful that it is being felt and heard and understood.

LF: Lady Bird was, in essence, a woman-led film, which feels incredibly important in this political climate. How did that affect the energy on set?

AN: I keep telling Greta how important her voice is in this very moment. It has been a difficult few years, politically and personally, for so many and especially for the great mother Earth. I feel like Greta’s voice is a harbinger of a new narrative in cinema, for authenticity and truth and a voice for all the historically marginalized: women, queers, and people of color. I could not be more grateful to have played a small part of the story at this time. Lady Bird seems to be a voice for so many who are craving to be heard. It is wondrous to see how it is resonating.

LF: It was widely acclaimed as a relatable coming of age tale. What do you think is the reason for its widespread and nearly universal appeal? 

AN: The world seems energized right now in its resistance of the oppression of power, and the silencing of the marginalized. I feel like Lady Bird’s heart speaks to these feelings.

LF: Who or what inspires you?

AN: Buckminster Fuller, the moon, Carl Sagan, looking up into the night sky, breathing, all the extraordinary women who have come before me to teach and set the groundwork: George Sand, Anais Nin, Pema Chodron, Patti Smith, Anni Anders, Hilma af Klimt, Jane Goodall, Mama Pacha. So many more.

LF: How do you recharge creatively when you’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed?

AN: I think it’s always important to take time to go outside into the world, and to go inside to that vast internal universe. Travel is a big part of my experience. I tend to go east, to Japan, where I sit at a monastery. Laos, Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka.

LF: What is your guilty pleasure?

AN: Doing absolutely nothing. It’s also the hardest thing for me.

LF: Who is your style icon?

AN: Patti Smith/Jane Birkin/Debbie Harry – Can there be just one?

LF: You’ve been in the industry for almost 30 years. Do you have any tricks or tips for successful thrifting? Where is your favorite place to shop in LA?

AN: Take your time and touch everything. Stay with that one piece of clothing that you almost dismiss for a moment and wonder, “Why am I about to reject this?” I love the PCC swap meet, I love Jet Rag and the weird thrift stores in Sunland and deep in the Valley. And now of course, there are Etsy & Ebay, the most giant thrift stores in the world. Finding your Fabergé egg in the thrift store is such a rad feeling.

LF: What advice would you give your younger self?

AN: Be kind, trust what is happening, and take a moment to really look around and appreciate every sacred second. Slow down!

LF: What’s next for you?

AN: I’m reading scripts and I want to tell more stories of authenticity and consciousness! It’s time to wake up and I’m sure my next project will be an extension of that story.

LF: How fast do you live?

AN: I try to live as slow as possible. It’s a constant struggle, but I’m ok with that struggle!

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