In the early 1970s, after a fall from the upper echelons of New York society, a mother and daughter known as Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale were living in increasing squalor in their crumbling East Hampton mansion. Overrun with stray cats and botched dreams, they were unlikely movie stars and even less likely style icons, but they became both after filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles captured their bizarre life in Grey Gardens, the 1975 cinema-verite classic.
This year, HBO Films revisited Grey Gardens with a two-hour drama of the same name, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie. The Emmy-winning HBO remake (now available on DVD) supplemented the original documentary with a fictionalized backstory of the Edies’ rise and fall and rise again, told in part through the decay of the women’s attire and their once-lavish seaside retreat. “To be able to tell that story, for me, through their clothing, was obviously [the] main goal,” says costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas. “Just trying to get into their heads and how they journeyed to that place.”
After speaking with Thomas about her work outfitting the cast of HBO’s retelling, Paste assembled some of our favorite modern goods and accessories reminiscent of the Edies’ singular style turned ramshackle kitsch.
Paste: There are objects you also see in the original documentary—like big Edie’s red, blue and white hat—which become part of the backstory in the HBO version. Did you make up histories for these items?
Catherine Marie Thomas: We tried to link things that we saw later because it really was this sort of decoupage of all these things in the documentary footage. You see the mom when she’s in the bed in the documentary and there’s stuff piled around her all over the place, and who knows where that stuff came from? For us, it was really important to bring things from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s all the way up into that so that it really does sort of build.
Paste: Did you have to recreate a lot of the items on your own?
Thomas: We recreated a lot of it, and we found things that were similar, and then fashioned them to look like they were pieces from the documentary. We tried to be as careful and as close as we could. There were many things, actually, that we took liberties with in our mock-documentary footage that are sort of reminiscent of things that Little Edie would have worn, so that we could really channel her, and make up things that we thought would have also been appropriate to have been at the house during that time period.
Paste: Working on a project like this, where the style is so rich and so specific, did you find that it affected your own personal style?
Thomas: No, not really. We would joke about it in a way—but, no, I think the great thing about the story and Little Edie is certainly that she was such a genius manipulator of fabrics. She really, really understood clothing in a way that many people don’t. For me, that was fascinating—to be able to take a skirt and turn it upside down, and for it to become something else. I think everybody that studies her learns a lot from her because she is just such a brilliant mind. She seems like this very eccentric crazy woman on the outside, but she really was quite smart and really, really genius. They were very progressive, and what I found fascinating about them was that in many ways she didn’t care what anyone thought about them.