On the surface, there are no morally gray areas in May December. The Todd Haynes drama, out in theatres and on Netflix now, follows the semi-fictional tabloid story of a 36-year-old woman who rightfully goes to jail after getting caught having sex with a 13-year-old boy in Savannah in the ‘90s. Twenty years later, a movie is being made about the now-married couple, Gracie and Joe (played by Julianne Moore and Charles Melton), in which a TV star with questionable intentions, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), is set to play the former. But while Gracie sees the film as an opportunity “to tell the story right,” May December shows the story the way it really is.
After establishing Gracie and Joe’s relationship as one formed through sexual abuse and a power imbalance, May December zooms in on people’s ability to warp reality into a story that would allow a convicted sex offender to see herself as a fragile woman who escaped an unhappy marriage after being “seduced” by a 13-year-old boy. “There's so many different layers to the film, it really makes you start questioning the sense of identity,” says costume designer April Napier. “[It’s a story about] how we understand ourselves and how others understand us, how we understand somebody else, and our human inability to not do that very well.”
Napier — who previously worked on Certain Women, Lady Bird, and Booksmart — created a wardrobe of innocence for a character who seems unencumbered by a past that includes having one of her three children with Joe in prison while he was still a teen. Instead, Gracie attempts to project “loveliness” and “brightness,” as her former lawyer puts it in the film, through a wardrobe of floral dresses, fluttery blouses, and a soft palette of lavenders and pinks. “Julie [Moore] had discussed that she wanted her character to be very princess-like and very contained and very kind of perfect, her femininity,” says Napier. “[In her head] this young, masculine, sensual man comes and kind of rescues her.”
For Moore’s character, Napier referenced photographs from Tina Barney’s Theater of Manners, Deborah Turbeville’s Valentino ads from the late ‘70s, and Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” series, as well as films like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and Robert Altman's 3 Women. This translated to cottagecore-esque dresses (including Hill House Home’s popular Nap Dress for the scene from the film’s poster), frilly blouses, soft polos, and pastel-hued pants.
Gracie maintains a facade of frailty throughout the film, only once trading her ultra-feminine style for a look to go hunting, as her marriage begins to show cracks as a result of Elizabeth’s presence, which makes Joe question the beginnings of his relationship with Gracie. “She's now feeling attacked… so it's the one time when she can sort of veer into her sense of masculinity,” she says. “But there’s still a femininity about her. Her jeans and T-shirt fit properly. She has a Barbour jacket. There's still a precision or control about [her look], but it's the one time when she's showing that fierceness.”
In direct opposition, Elizabeth, who doesn’t shy away from the fact that she finds it interesting to play “bad” people, arrives in Georgia in razor-sharp blazers from APC and The Row, jeans from Khaite and Levi’s, and jewelry from Cartier. “Jane Birkin was kind of our touchstone with the hair, with the blazers, with the simplicity of what she wears, like very easy, comfortable, confident,” Napier says. She instantly establishes herself as an outsider thanks to her penchant for dark colorways and a minimalist uniform. “Natalie brought up a good point: Elizabeth came for a week to do her research, and she just brought a small suitcase. So how much can she actually have? There's a little bit of realism,” says Napier.
This faithfulness applies to the scene where Elizabeth wears a burgundy slip dress to meet Gracie and Joe at their barbecue. “We were trying to dress everyone in some element of red, white, and blue because they were celebrating Memorial Day,” says Napier. “So that was kind of her way; she was like, ‘Okay, I'll wear a form of red, but it's going to be burgundy. And I'm going to wear my Hermès hat and my Saint Laurent glasses.’ She doesn't want to stick out too much in black. She wants to try to fit in and calm them so that they will divulge information.” She likewise uses her wardrobe to her advantage when she wears a sheer blouse to meet Joe alone later in the film.
While Portman starts the film in dark clothes, that range from a black Saint Laurent turtleneck to a black Issey Miyake dress, as Napier puts it, “her palette starts to soften up once she realizes how she is going to transform into Gracie.” After Elizabeth begins to channel Gracie, she embraces warmer hues like browns and grays before donning an out-of-character rose pink dress that, Napier imagined, Elizabeth bought while in town: “That would have been something that she could have purchased there… She wouldn't have actually brought that. ”
As Elizabeth stops passively observing and attempts to relive the events of the past using some morally objectionable tactics, the two women start blending into each other, which is driven home through Napier’s wardrobe selections. Inspired by the 1964 film The Pumpkin Eater, where a man is caught in a triangle between his wife and young mistress, Napier wanted Gracie and Elizabeth to reflect each other in button-front dresses and aprons (top photo) for a baking scene. “They’re tonally the same, but Natalie has the graphic [print], and Julie has the floral. And then we put the floral apron over Natalie — imagining that the apron that Julie would have hanging in her house would be a floral one — to mimic the floral dress Julie's wearing,” says Napier. “Mirrors are such a major part of this film, in terms of identity, your reflection of yourself, you looking at yourself.”
As the tension reaches a boiling point, in the final scene of the movie the women once again mirror each other in white dresses and sunglasses, “like two white knights who meet each other on the field,” says Napier. “It's their final battle. But then again, Natalie has to have a more geometric-shaped, tailored dress, and Gracie the fluttery one. Gracie has a pair of round shades — they were Celine, but they have that '70s vibe — and then Elizabeth has on her classic Saint Laurent glasses.”
Caught between two women is Joe. In an extraordinary performance that already won the Riverdale star the Gotham Award, Melton takes on the character whose childhood was cut short even before meeting Gracie. Rather than look like someone in his thirties, at the beginning of the film, Joe wears preppy fatherly staples like boat shoes and button-downs. “We wanted him to be like a little boy dressing like a dad. But also, we were mindful that in Savannah, and in a lot of the South, there's a uniform that all the men wear, which is pleated khakis, Top-siders, polo shirts, or button-ups,” says Napier. She also wanted the look to play into Joe’s yearning to fit into a group of people that has long ostracized him. “He's a younger man. He’s Korean [in a predominantly white neighborhood]. He's trying to grow up. He's trying to fit in. He's trying to be a part of the community. He's trying to be a father and a husband.”
As Joe reflects on what happened 20 years prior, he wears more youthful clothes that seem like remnants from his stilted childhood. In one particularly emotional scene, he matches his son in jeans and sneakers, finally looking like the young man that he is. “We put him in an Abercrombie and Fitch rugby shirt,” says Napier. “We washed the crap out of it and got it brown. Like, it's his favorite thing that he's worn forever, this cozy thing. And then his kind of '90s pale denim and his New Balance trainers. Like, a kid dad.”
Joe’s shirt wasn’t the only piece that Napier wanted to look used, sourcing a big chunk of the clothing for the film from secondhand site The RealReal. “As a costume designer, I don't like to buy new things, because they look so fake. They look like costumes… that doesn't help build character,” she says. “I prefer to rent things or source things or vintage shop for things that have more wear to them because it imbues them with a sense of realism.”
If you could tell what’s real in May December, that is.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).