The Clothing in May December Is Just as Nuanced as the Rest of the Film

Costume designer April Napier drew on unexpected sources of inspiration when creating transformative looks for the cast.


There are many stand out moments in Todd Hayne’s May December, a black comedy loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau story that dominated tabloids in the late ‘90s. Some can’t stop talking about when Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, an actress preparing to play Letourneau stand-in Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a movie, visits the local high school about halfway through the film and gives a stirring speech on the craft of acting. Others are stuck on a line from one of the first scenes, when Moore’s Gracie opens the fridge, composer Marcelo Zarvos’ dramatic refrain begins, and she exclaims, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” (Spoiler: they do).

And then of course, there’s the moment when Elizabeth sits in a boutique alongside Gracie, as they watch the latter’s daughter try on graduation dresses. The teenage Mary (Elizabeth Yu) comes out in a sleeveless white gown, pleased with her selection. “Oh Mary, I want to commend you for being so brave and showing your arms like that,” Gracie says. The statement clearly hits a sore spot for Mary (as well as for any woman who has spent a moment on this earth), and she returns to the safety of her dressing room to try on a more modest option.

This is the only overt style moment within May December, but clothing plays a large—though still quiet—role within the film. It’s used as a tool as Elizabeth slowly mirrors Gracie more and more throughout their time together, as well as a way to further infantilize Charles Melton’s Joe in his most saddening moments, to make them hurt just a little more. “There’s a nuance and subtlety to the way I like to present costumes,” the film’s costume designer, April Napier, tells W over Zoom. “I don't want them to shout out loud. It's nice when there's a timelessness to them and they have references.” And references abound in Napier’s work—from Ingmar Bergman, to Deborah Turbeville, to a niche 1964 film you’ll feel compelled to watch after hearing her speak on it. Below, Napier talks dressing May December’s three main characters, the subtle choices that allowed Elizabeth’s mirroring of Gracie to come to life, and the nap dress that has everyone talking.


What were some of the inspirations for Gracie’s wardrobe in the film?

Todd has a massive image book as well as a list of film to use as touchstones. But personally, I landed on photographer Tina Barney’s Theater of Manners book, as well as some Deborah Turbeville photographs for Valentino. She did these beautiful advertisements in the late seventies that are very soft and feminine. Also, [Robert] Altman’s 3 Women, just for the color palette of lavenders and blushes and some [Ingmar] Bergman films like Persona and Scenes for a Marriage, which is one of my favorite ever productions.

What about Elizabeth?

We knew Natalie had to be in contrast to Gracie. We don't know what city she's coming from, but it's a city. We really used Jane Birkin as a touchstone for the character, because she does have a timelessness to her. When Natalie came in for the fittings, we made of map of her changes, because she starts in monochromatic navies and grays, and then she goes paler, wearing lavenders, pinks, and ivories. She transforms into this character that she's trying to possess. Though, who's to say who’s possessing who. It's such an incredible film because it has such depth. There's so much complexity to it and so many layers.

How did you approach dressing Joe?

For the men in Savannah, there's a uniform: you have a blue polo, a blue oxford. You have some khakis. You wear top-siders. Any shop you went to, there were eight million button down shirts and eight million pairs of khakis. I had an inkling that there was a uniform like that when I was here in Los Angeles, and then when I got to Savannah to film, I was, “No shit. This is crazy.”

The men wear very specific things, but Joe is an outsider. He's a child when he is a husband. He's Korean. Still, he’s trying to fit into this environment, so he's going to wear that uniform. One of my favorite scenes, though, is when he is on the rooftop with Gabriel [Chung]. That's the place where we put him in something more comfortable. It’s an Abercrombie rugby shirt. It's the one at the bottom of your drawer that’s like your teddy bear or blanket. We washed it down and got it dirty, so it was as if he'd had it forever.


These characters go through such a transformation within the film. How do you illustrate that through their wardrobe choices?

When I first talked to Julie [Moore], we knew Gracie had this performative femininity. She thinks of herself as a princess because she's holding together, very brittlely, the idea that everything's okay. So we knew she had to be softer and flouncier. She has that nap dress. She has those soft blouses that have some femininity to them. There's a lightness to what she's presenting and how she's presenting it. And then we knew Natalie would have to come in and be more rigid, in more of an urban uniform. Then she changes through her color palette, through the textures and how the pieces move, and also through hair and makeup.

At many points Gracie and Elizabeth’s looks either mirror or contrast each other.

Yes, there are two good examples of that. The first is when they're trying on the graduation dresses and Natalie's in her long Issey Miyake with that slouchy sweater over it. And Gracie’s in that little lavender knit polo with her high-waisted jeans. And then, one of my favorite scenes is when Elizabeth comes over for her baking class, and Gracie's in her Laura Ashley dress with her linen apron. Natalie comes in, deep in her transformation now, with a very similar, button-front dress in a similar silky fabric, but it's got a more graphic sensibility to it. They're coming together. And then Gracie gives her the floral apron to impress herself on Elizabeth even further.


I think that's the moment I realized, “Oh, Elizabeth is clearly slowly starting to mimic Gracie's dressing,” and it almost seems like that's the moment Gracie realizes it as well.

That was a reference to a film Todd sent us called The Pumpkin Eater from 1964. We had never heard of it. Natalie and I are on a two-woman campaign to give it a resurgence because it's an incredible film. It stars Anne Bancroft as a housewife and Peter Finch as a struggling screenwriter who starts to stray as he becomes more successful. One of his actresses is played by Maggie Smith, and she comes and stays with the couple because she’s down on her luck. There's this scene with Anne Bancroft and Maggie Smith in the kitchen baking, and they're both wearing matching, non-matching patterns, and I really use that as a touchstone for Gracie and Elizabeth.

The film is set in 2015. Is that something you kept in mind when dressing the characters?

Yeah, I was trying to be mindful of it obviously, but I think the reason that Todd did it in 2015 was because of the environment. He wanted it to be less politicized and less polarized, just prior to the Trump era, when things were in a somewhat more idyllic and neutral place.

I wanted to discuss the scene in the dressing room when Mary is trying on graduation dresses. How did you choose those three pieces she tries on?

So, the first dress had to be sweet, shiny, nasty...It had to be ugly. It had to be more like what Gracie would imagine, and then the dialogue around the second dress references the arms, so we knew that one had to be sleeveless. And then we had to land in a place of something that looked beautiful, but covered her arms because she's responding to her mom’s comment. We got there that day and were told the shot was going to be a oner. So I had to go in the dressing room with an assistant of mine, and dress Elizabeth [Yu] in real time.


I noted that not long after that scene we see Gracie in the Hill House Nap Dress, which is similar to the sleeveless one Mary tries on.

Julie mentioned, “My daughter was buying these nap dresses during COVID. What about those?” We brought it to the fitting, and Julie thought it was perfect for the scene when she's breaking down and then she's making the coconut cake. It's so good because it infantilizes her.

But you weren’t conscious of the fact that Gracie is wearing a dress she basically just made her daughter feel too self-conscious to wear herself?

No. That's a pretty good observation actually.

May December is now streaming on Netflix.