In conversation with Jacqueline West - Live by Night Costume Designer

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Sienna Miller in Live by Night
Sienna Miller's flapper dress in Live by Night
Zoe Saldana Live by Night
Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by Night

We caught up with Jacqueline to find out about her work on the film Live By Night, a prohibition era gangster flick in which a group of gangsters set up a speakeasy in Florida - facing off against the competition and the Ku Klux Klan. The film is a bevvy of danger, glamourous cool characters and stunning costumes. Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana (all with good costumes!)

Hi Jacqueline, tell us about how you start researching and finding ideas for a prohibition era movie like Live By Night.

Well, Live by Night was a great project. I started working on it quite far in advance - researching prohibition and gangsters. I looked at mugshots from gangsters, I watched movies and read old magazines from the era. I even read books on gangsters such as Al Capone.

I must have had over 2000 pieces of research in the end - all organised by character.

To watch the movie, the settings and costumes complement one another so well. What comes first, the costumes or the set design?

Traditionally, production design will start beforehand but Live by Night was different. I was able to start well in advance and when I went to see Jess (Gonchor, Production Designer), we discovered that we were on exactly the same page with ideas and inspiration. Ben (Affleck, Director) was looking at everything throughout the entire research and design process so he knew before we did that we were one the same page!

Are the costumes all made from scratch or are some original pieces?

We made everything from scratch for this movie. Partly because so much happens to them!

The first challenge was Sienna Miller's flapper dress. I knew what I wanted but I couldn't find the right dress to base it on. I really wanted it to be a sequinned dress. You see flappers were not rich and sequins would have been much cheaper and more shiny than beads. Beads were generally seen on the upper class in the 20s and 30s.

I could picture the scene. I wanted her to look like a chandelier - bright and sparkly, something you wouldn't be able to take your eyes off.

I looked in costume houses in the US, Italy and London and then one day I was in a friend's vintage store in LA and I picked up a heavy dress bag. I pulled out the most amazing sequined 20s dress. All the sequins fell to the floor, the dress was deteriorating but that was it! I had it put back together to show Ben. He loved it and I then hired three beaders to make four identical dresses from scratch.

How many of the costumes get lost due to damage or stunts?

Not as many as you would think. We actually leave a lot to CGI. We do have some multiples of costumes but where you see blood for example, this is added after the fact. Most costumes stayed well in-tact during this movie - minus a few beads on dresses. In fact, most of the dresses have gone on to exhibitions around the world.

Those dresses! Which is your favourite?

Zoe Saldana's striped dress is a favourite of mine. It was based on a dress worn by a character I saw in an old Cagney film. I had the dress made and took pictures on Zoe. When I looked at them I decided that the sleeves should be removable, making it a much more romantic dress. I just love how the stripes snaked around her body and the way the sleeves moved.

How about the accessories - where do you find them?

I plan the accessories as part of the overall costume. I like to have complete control over bags and hats to make sure the look really is an ensemble. All the accessories were genuine - either purchased or found in costume houses.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I'm inspired by all eras but 20s to 30s is really my favourite time in fashion. I also love the 50s and I was a child of the 60s so a lot of the looks I grew up with were a rehash of the 20s. As you can imagine, Benjamin Button was a dream project - I got to create looks that spanned 100 years!

Do you wear much vintage yourself?

I have a huge collection of vintage but I haven't been wearing so much over the last few years. In Berkeley my best friend and I used to go vintage shopping a lot. Vintage was huge there. What I really like is the different zeitgeist we've been seeing lately - people are wearing more vintage and mixing it with modern pieces.

What do you love most about your job?

Time travel. After all the research I get to step into a set with clothes, cars, makeup, hair… I really felt like I was there in the 20s with Live by Night. It's a real pleasure when the actors feel the same way too. Sienna Miller studied flappers so that she could really play the part. She became a flapper! Her body language, sense of clothing, it really made it thrilling.

What did you do before this job?

I was an art historian. I actually went to Berkeley to go to medical school but I switched my major. My mother was a fashion designer and whilst most people had a Barbie, I had a full sized mannequin which I used to dress up in my mum's Dior, so I think fashion and fashion history was always in my blood.

At one point a store opened up next to Chez Panisse and everyone said 'why don't you open a store?' So I did! Chez Panisse was a mecca for filmmakers and they often came into the store. One day, Philip Kaufman came in and said 'why don't you come and design Henry & June for me in Paris?' Then I worked with him on a second and third film and got an award nomination. From then on, I started getting approached by more film makers and here I am today.

Jacqueline West, we want your job!

If you missed Live by Night at the cinema, it's out now on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD. Grab a copy and soak up those costumes with a nice glass of G&T. Aren't we lucky prohibition ended?

P.S. Did you know that our newsletters often contain vintage cocktail recipes? No? Well then sign up here, you old soak.

To celebrate this exciting Home Entertainment release we are giving away three LIVE BY NIGHT Blu-rays™ to three lucky winners. To be in with a chance of winning this prize, all you need to do is answer this question.