Costume secrets from New York disco cult classic ’54’

A resurrected director’s cut of disco drama 54 brings Ryan Phillippe – and his insanely skintight busboy get-ups – to the big screen once again.

When New York’s famed nightclub Studio 54 hit its so-cool-I’m-untouchable vibe in 1979, director Mark Christopher was just graduating from his Iowa high school. “Even in Iowa, I knew all about Studio 54 and dreamed about it,” said Christopher ahead of 54‘s original release, “because just reading about it was exciting.”

When Christopher moved to New York in the 1980s, new nightspots reigned supreme but none came close to capturing the crazied fervour of Studio 54. The legendary club still remained open (even if it wasn’t what it once was) and Christopher spent his fair share of nights on the dance floor allowing his imagination to run wild. He wanted to write a disco movie about 70s youth adolescence and slowly his idea for a screenplay began to take shape – from an aspiring bartender named Shane’s point of view.

By the time 54 opened in cinemas in 1998, the story might have suffered at the hands of drastic studio-imposed cuts and reshoots but thankfully, the impact of the wardrobe and soundtrack remained just as interesting to us punters. (Although as Phillippe points out in this article by Vulture, herding up the actors for those reshoots months later meant the actors’ hair and physique had changed considerably – calling into play costume story changes and wigs that needed to be worked into the storyline.)

Ryan Phillippe 70s costumes in Studio 54 movie

Needless to say, aforementioned changes were still designed with the film’s mantra very much in mind: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”. (Much to Phillippe’s chagrin, who had stopped going to the gym yet was required to be shirtless once again.) The less-is-more philosophy is something Shane learns from his very first attempt at getting past Studio 54’s door bitch. The club’s seedy owner Steve Rubbell, played by an excellently creepy Mike Myers, wants Shane in his club, just “not with that shirt, pfft”. If Shane wants in, he must do it shirtless. Naturally, Shane complies.

It is the start of a complex journey for young Shane, who learns that fashion – and wild, barely-there costuming – is crucial to his longevity inside New York’s A-list club. Some of his outfits are certainly more comical than others. After his initial peek behind the velvet rope, Shane lands a job as a Studio 54 busboy where his uniform is simply a pair of micro-mini silver shorts (“I couldn’t find the right size” he cluelessly announces to a sniggering drinks crew). Those chosen to upgrade to waiter status are afforded the dignity of denim jeans.

The boys behind the bar are part of the sex-fuelled attraction of 54 – they are to look good but never speak to the crowd, especially the VIPs – and they relish their role as sex gods, even if Shane soon realises it is going to take more than a flash of his rock hard abs to truly be accepted into the creme de la creme of society. “It’s a whole other world, huh,” laments Shane to glamorous soap star Julie Black (Neve Campbell) when he discovers she hails from his same Jersey hometown. “You’ll learn,” she replies. “Two languages, two sets of clothes, two sets of friends.”

Ryan Phillippe in silver shorts in 54 movie

As we see, and as Julie well knows, it’s not just the men being exploited here. Coat check girls are a different kind of eye candy, none more rapturous than Salma Hayek’s character Anita, a wannabe recording artist with as much ambition as any man on a mission, who is willing to do whatever – and whomever – it takes to score her big break. That is the “acknowledged” road to success in Manhattan. Even when Anita is outside the coat room, working her day job as a dance instructor or pottering around the flat she shares with her husband Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Shane, her daily attire is never without some form of stretchy skintight material so popular in that era (lycra, denim, whatever was going). 

Those obvious 70s fashion references are constantly used with varying degrees of sophistication throughout the film: high-waisted jeans, turtlenecks, fringing (which is having its own runway renaissance this year), suede, platforms and bell-bottoms comprise the bulk of everyone’s “off-duty” costume stories.

Salma Hayek coat check girl in 54

But it’s a different scene inside 54 itself, where celebrities and wealthy A-listers are primped and often themed for a full night of partying in an extraordinary display of fashions – from sleek LBDs like the one Julie wears, to skimpy glittery numbers and jumpsuits – all of which know no boundaries.

“This was a time when people really did preen like peacocks,” said costume designer Ellen Lutter at the time of making of the film. “Call it ugly, call it over the top, but people tried to be different and to be themselves, and you don’t see that now.”

Lutter worked closely with Christopher and production designer Kevin Thompson to create the film’s visual themes before she set about dressing her cast.

“We have 70 speaking roles, and our lead character Shane has over 20 costume changes,” said Lutter. “With extras, we’re way over 4,000 costumes. A lot of them are young and don’t understand the clothing, so they have to be instructed: ‘No, your pants are not too tight. If you can zip them, they fit!”‘

Studio 54 movie dance floor costume fashions

Tracking down all those costumes in the late 90s for what was essentially a period piece, before the internet had become so helpful, must have been daunting for Lutter. But then she came across a “dead stock” warehouse in St. Louis called Hullabaloo, piled high with brand new garments from the 1960’s onwards. “My assistant and I spent four days there,” said Lutter, “looking through boxes and racks and racks of clothing, and filling huge hampers with stuff.

Then came the next challenge: sourcing couture for New York’s elite.

“We have a lot of high-end characters who move through the fashion world,” said Lutter, who dressed them in retro couture pieces by Alaia, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Betsey Johnson, Bill Blass, Mary McFadden and Claude Montana (plus some of her own designs).

Sela Ward and Lauren Hutton in 54 movie

One resource that proved particularly helpful was a designer vintage shop in Soho called Ina, where Lutter managed to find the dazzling gold Claude Montana jacket that Sela Ward’s character Billie wears. Then, three- and-a-half weeks before shooting started, Ina turned Lutter on to a designer and private collector named Kenny Valenti. “He designed for Betsey Johnson and Fiorucci, then started collecting 1970’s couture from all over the country,” said Lutter. Best of all – Valenti also used to be a bartender at the real 54!

“Some of our stuff goes over the top,” summed up Lutter of all the costuming, “but I think that’s one way to capture what was in the air”. It is hard for us in 2015 to envisage such pure, unadulterated lack of restraint now. Perhaps those of us too young (just) to have experienced the 1970’s firsthand prefer to identify the decade for its music and fashion. Both of which add considerable colour to 54.

Ryan Phillippe in suede jacket in Studio 54 movie

But those two things are simply a byproduct of a decade of experimentation, of decadence, of a time with very few boundaries; where there were next to no rules, no addictions and no illnesses like AIDS to consider. Seemingly the first time Shane considers the after effects of sleeping around is when he goes to take a leak “and it felt like razorblades”. (“Don’t tell me that’s your first?” says the bartender, looking down beside him. “You got the clap, man. Wake up.”) The presence of gonorrhoea, apparently, was nothing more than a nuisance.

As the resurrected director’s cut is about to show us once again, this time as director Mark Christopher originally intended it, Studio 54 symbolised one non-stop party for the beautiful people; a party where not even the death of 54‘s elderly patron Disco Dot convulsing on the dance floor was enough to bring them out of their reverie for longer than a fleeting second.

Neve Campbell on silver banquette in 54 movie

Several actors in Christopher’s cast – such as Sela Ward and Lauren Hutton – experienced the club at its peak in real life. “It was everything that you’ve read about and heard about, quite a circus,” says Ward. In the words of legendary Manhattan restauranteur Elaine Kaufman: “It was the ultimate candy store.”

What a candy store, indeed.

* With thanks to Miramax and Sydney Film Festival for images, quotes and production info.

54 The Director's Cut movie poster 2015
54: The Director’s Cut screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 12 and 13. For further info visit SFF here.

the author

Marie C

Feature writer by trade, movie maniac by night, Marie-Christine grew up watching films from the projection booth at the local drive-in and now she's lucky enough to write about them.

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