20 Years Later, Moulin Rouge! Is Just as Fabulous As Ever
In many ways, Moulin Rouge!, which came out 20 years ago today, was ahead of its time. In 2001, Hollywood was no stranger to big blockbuster films, but a splashy approach to making movie-musicals was still relatively new. Director Baz Luhrmann’s approach saw the genre go bigger, louder, and glitzier than ever before—much thanks to Moulin Rouge’s elaborate set designs and over-the-top costumes, of course. “We were sailing in uncharted waters,” says Catherine Martin, who served as the co-costume designer alongside Angus Strathie. “Baz was trying to reinvent the modern movie musical, and flying in the face of all studio conventions. He is an extraordinary visionary, and pushes you as an artist to examine stories and historical periods in new and totally unexpected ways.”
If you’ve never seen the film, the plot follows a young Englishman (Ewan McGregor) who becomes infatuated with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a singer at the local Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris. Set in 1900, the historical time period is juxtaposed by raucous renditions of modern songs like “Lady Marmalade.” The costumes Satine wears on-stage at the club play an equally-important role in the flick (so much so that both Martin and Strathie earned an Oscar for their work). Each scene brings a more enchanting look than the last: She’ll sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a crystal-embellished, fringed mini dress with a tophat to match, then dance to a number like “Rhythm of the Night” wearing a fitted bustier with a dramatic feathered train.
To develop the costumes, Martin first looked back to 1889, when the Moulin Rouge originally opened (yes, it’s a real place). They based many of the looks that Satine and her dancers wear by examining what people really wore during the era. “It was very exciting because I got to go to the Costume Institute at the Met, and explore their collections from this period,” Martin says. “I remember being particularly excited by late 19th century feather boa. I just couldn’t believe its colors: It was the most brilliant orange and purple striped object, with fabulous silken tassels at the end. It was positively modern!” Martin liked it so much, she ended up designing a similar boa that’s worn by a dancer named Nini-Legs-in-the-Air during a party scene.
Though the costumes were historically accurate, Martin says she and Strathie had to incorporate elements that would make the clothes feel modern and fresh. “After researching and starting from historical fact, Baz talked about finding a way of connecting with the audience with the period clothes,” she says, adding that they looked to “classic movie musical heroines” for symbols and signs that the audience could connect with today. “One fundamental rule was that we couldn’t use anything that was anachronistic,” Martin says, though there were a few gray areas they let slide. “We could include elements such as Satine wearing dark glasses, even though conventional wisdom would refute this choice. Sunglasses actually existed for scientific purposes, mountain climbing, skiing, or going to the Arctic, but the question of would a musician have worn them like we do today, is open for discussion.”
It’s hard for Martin to pick a favorite costume from Moulin Rouge!, but one of her favorite details from the project was playing into Luhrmann’s fixation on the color red, especially via Satine’s iconic red gown for the “Elephant Love Medley” track. “The red dress that Satine wears is striking in its simplicity and its sculptural form,” says Martin. “There’s nothing to hide behind. It’s just needed to be executed with confidence.”
As for the memory that Martin can’t shake from working on the film two decades ago? It had nothing to do with the costuming, rather the dramatic finale to the movie shoot all together. “One of the saddest and most most magnificent things that I experienced during the making of Moulin Rouge! was when our enormous elephant room that graced the Moulin Rouge garden was demolished,” says Martin. “We built it on stage two at the then-Fox Studios in Australia. We were running late in filming and Star Wars was coming in right on our heels. So, instead of carefully dismantling our wonderful elephant, we needed to bring in the excavation equipment and steam rollers to quickly demolish the structure. I’ll never forget seeing the elephant fall to its knees majestically into a pile of rubble on the stage floor.” A dramatic end to one of Hollywood’s most theatrical films.
Published at Sun, 16 May 2021 21:06:20 +0000