In a country that was bleeding through the bandages of the misery created by the July 1830 revolution; among the palaces and the noblemen who tried to pick their way through the dregs of a monarchy sinking into autocracy; in the foul-smelling alleyways of Paris — that is where the writer Victor Hugo found love, honor, misfortune, passion and justice. In other words, that is where he found Les misérables.
The paramount novel of the Romantic movement entered the 20th century as a musical with all the accoutrements that the genre requires — but without overlooking the harsh reality portrayed in the original. Premiered in Paris in 1980 and five years later in London, the show went on to become one of the longest-running and best-loved musicals of all time.
Last month, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) released a film version starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. And it was a Spaniard, Paco Delgado, who created the wardrobe for those big-name Hollywood stars.
Delgado, who has worked regularly with Spanish filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Alex de la Iglesia, was noticed by Hooper thanks to his work in Biutiful, directed by Alejandro González Iñarritu. After getting the job, he began researching the costumes, finding key elements in the meticulous descriptions provided by Victor Hugo himself in the novel.
“Later came the paintings by Delacroix, Ingres and Goya,” explains the designer over the phone. “I was very interested in \[Goya’s\] Black Paintings.”
By visiting art and fashion museums, Delgado was finally able to strike the difficult balance between the dark reality of a wounded society as described in the book and the colorful fantasy of the musical.
“Color depends on genre and it evolves, just like the fabrics themselves, in step with each character’s feelings,” he explains. Red is for the convicts, blue is for the factory uniforms; there is an obsessive repetition of the red-white-blue of the French flag at the barricades and among large crowds; and loud colors brighten up the decadent street corners where the prostitutes lie in wait.
Paco Delgado prepared for five months (not counting the additional four months of the shoot) to be ready to cope with the task of dressing more than 4,000 extras, besides the main characters.
“Jean Valjean [played by Jackman] starts out on the lowest rung of society, wearing raggedy clothes of many textures, and he slowly becomes more sophisticated in terms of color and fabric,” he says. Russell Crowe, who plays the indefatigable Inspector Javert, obsessive in his persecution of Valjean, is frozen into a range of blues that nearly fade into black.
“Fantine, the character played by Anne Hathaway, is brief yet intense; she determines many aspects of the movie and her personal journey should be expressed by her wardrobe,” says Delgado. In order to recreate the life of a Parisian coquette, who never dreamed that love could end with the bald, toothless misfortune of a beaten prostitute, the designer began with splendid needlework and brilliant pink tones, gradually descending into the filthy grey of a deathbed.
“This movie is a perfect vehicle to show off the wardrobe,” says the designer. “To avoid slipping into boredom for two-and-a-half hours, we needed to play with all sorts of powerful visual references.”
In order to achieve some comic relief, in theatrical terms, the movie has the Thénardiers, a couple played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. “They are two clowns,” says Delgado about the two masters of disguise, who project the essence of the musical.
“Nobody sees the costumes, nobody realizes that the outfits of four poor wretches take just as much work, because you have to ensure that they do not distract viewers from the story.”
If Paco Delgado’s name appears inside one of the envelopes of the Academy Award nominations on January 10, he could become the only Spaniard to run for an Oscar this year. For now, though, he does not appear to be particularly concerned about it.
“I would rather keep calm. The movie itself is already a prize that has allowed me to grow artistically; prizes are all very well, but they do not always reflect the best work.”