Mad Max Fury Road’s Oscar-winning costume design

*UPDATE Monday February 29, 2016: Jenny Beavan wins Best Costume Design at the 2016 Oscars!

The Wives’ skimpy attire was actually inspired by a ballet George Miller had seen, in which the dancers had been adorned in crepe bandages.

When George Miller invited the girls to his post-apocalyptic yard for Mad Max: Fury Road, he redefined his entire franchise. Why? Because Miller not only breathed new life into a story many thought had no need of a fourth chapter – he also gave us the strongest action female lead not seen since the glory days of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

Naturally he didn’t stop there. One x Imperator, five x beautiful Wives and some desert tribal women later, and Miller had a full-blown revolution on his hands.

Have you met them yet?

Imperator Furiosa

Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max FURY ROAD

“When George told me he wanted to create a female Road Warrior who can stand next to this very iconic character (Max Rockatansky) as his equal, I believed him and he didn’t let me down,” says Charlize Theron of her character Imperator Furiosa, who for all intents and purposes is a female Max herself.

“The material allowed for two characters who don’t fall for each other, or even become friends, because there is no room for relationships in this place.”

“This place” is the Namibian desert, chosen as a filming location for the “wasteland” after excessive rainfall in Australia’s Broken Hill forced Miller and his team to abandon the idea of filming in the trilogy’s original location.

Not only is there no romance for Theron’s butt-kicking lead, there is also no make-up.

In this movie it is the men who require the most primping – well, painting anyway – as the War Boys sport bald heads, tattoos, scarification, and full white body-paint. X-Men‘s Nicholas Hoult sat in the make-up trailer for two hours each day for his role as Nux, freely admitting he envied how Theron worked it. “Charlize walks in, greases her forehead and out she goes. I was like, ‘Hang on a minute…’”

Theron confirms, “For me, it was just, ‘Where’s the grease? OK, let’s go.’ ” Since the actor spent so much time in Furiosa’s War Rig, she kept a make-up bag and compact mirror inside the cab to do her own touch-ups on the fly.

“She is an anti-hero in the classic sense,” Theron asserts. “She’s driven by these very human flaws.

“For me, what sets her off is that she has had enough of feeling worthless as a woman in a world where women are only good for one thing, and that’s procreating. And she’s going to take what matters most to the Immortan because he took the most valuable thing away from her when he stole her away from her mother and then discarded her.

“To me, this is about not letting the bastards get away with it, and I love that about her.”

 

Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Mad Max Fury Road

Director George Miller viewed the Wives as a “melody” and wanted an ensemble of individuals who would each bring her own note to it.

“The Five Wives are the classic MacGuffin in this film, the object everyone is after,” says Miller. (Aaaand that’s the entire plot – Furiosa and Max teaming up to transport the Wives away from their captor Immortan Joe. Is relatively simple but riveting viewing.) Still “you have to be able to instantly grab onto each one (of the Wives) in the middle of this wild chase through the Wasteland,” says Miller.

 

Splendid - Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Mad Max Fury Road

For “The Splendid Angharad”, the ad-hoc leader of the wives, Miller cast Transformers 3 model-turned-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Playing her second-in-command, “Capable”, is Magic Mike‘s Riley Keogh (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter). Zoe Kravitz (daugher of Lenny) is the tough and brainy “Toast the Knowing”. Rounding out the mix are two Australian models who made their film debut here – international success story Abbey Lee, who has three Australian films releasing this year, whom Miller cast as “The Dag”, and 16-year-old newcomer Courtney Eaton as the sheltered “Cheedo the Fragile” (watch for her in Gods of Egypt next).

Miller put them through a particularly unique kind of bootcamp in Sydney in preparation for their roles. All spent time doing movement work with Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard, and exploring their characters in workshops with co-writer Nico Lathouris. As part of their research, the Wives also spent time with feminist playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) who has worked in the Congo with women struggling with issues of rape.

“Eve Ensler was brilliant and made everything very real for us,” says Huntington-Whiteley, the only one of the Wives whose rape has resulted in conception.

“Splendid is the leader and an extremely strong character. She takes a maternal approach over all her sisters, but has conflicted emotions about her pregnancy. I did a lot of research on my own and had many conversations with Eve and George about how truly conflicted she would be about the child she’s carrying. She shows a lot of courage, but is often reckless, and I see that as an expression of the pain over what Immortan did to her and the possibility that she could still love the child.”

 

Capable

Riley Keough is Capable in Mad Max FURY ROAD

Keogh’s Capable also has a tender and compassionate side that emerges when she finds Nux (Nicholas Hoult) stowed away in the War Rig in the wake of a failed attempt to die stopping it.

“Because the Wives have seen the Immortan when he’s vulnerable, Capable knows he’s not this god-like thing that Nux believes he is,” says Keough.

“She feels empathy and finds a new purpose when she meets Nux. They really come to care for each other.”

 

Toast

Zoe Kravitz is Toast in Mad Max Fury Road

On the other end of the spectrum is Toast, who aspires to be a warrior like Furiosa.

“These girls have never had to do anything for themselves, and now they’re in this race for their lives,” says Kravitz.

“Suddenly they have to protect themselves and load weapons for Furiosa, and Toast is the one who is ready to step up to the plate and fight. There’s no time to think too hard or second-guess anything; there’s always someone coming for you.”

 

The Dag

Abbey Lee is the Dag in Mad Max Fury Road

“The Dag is a bit of comic relief,” says Lee, who, as an Australian, grew up with the Mad Max culture.

“There’s a darkness to her, and that’s where the comedy comes from; it’s her coping mechanism. Her name is derived from the term ‘daggy,’ which is an endearing term for someone who is a little bit left of center, someone awkward. She has a flightiness about her that can be mistaken for nervousness, but really it comes from having a heightened sense of awareness of what’s going on around her.”

 

Fragile

Courtney Eaton in Mad Max FURY ROAD

Eaton, who was only 16 years old during filming, plays Fragile, the youngest and most naive of the Wives.

“Fragile wasn’t born in the outside world,” Eaton says. “She was born in the Citadel, and doesn’t know anything other than that life. So being out there affects her. She wants to go back to something safe and stable, where she has food and water and knows she’s not going to die. She’s a little like the abused spouse, who will always go back to her abuser.”

Miller offers, “All the women are vulnerable because they’ve never been out there in the Wasteland, and, as Furiosa says, ‘It hurts out here.’ Of all them, Fragile is the most vulnerable, but she finds her own strength in the story.”

Mad Max Fury Road

Fragile is the least motivated to find the Green Place, a lush oasis Furiosa remembers from her childhood, where she believes the Wives will find a better life for themselves and Splendid’s unborn child.

“Furiosa has not descended into despair like Max,” Miller remarks. “She’s burnt out, but still has one last shot to escape across the Wasteland, not for herself but for these young women who still have hope. She’s trying to get them to the Green Place to find some meaning in her own life.”

We also see Max’s evolution into a nobler, more reliable man, says Miller. “We see what his better self could be. It’s where Furiosa already is. She’s fierce in her determination. Her heart gets pretty close to being crushed on this journey they take, but together, they find some way to stand against the chaos of the world and find some sort of redemption.”

 

Costumes of Mad Max Fury Road

Max’s costume

While costume designer Jenny Beavan has worked extensively (though not exclusively) on period films like The King’s Speech and Sherlock Holmes, the appeal of doing something post-apocalyptic “is really stretching your brain in a very different way, which was wonderful to jump into,” she says. “It’s elevated and fantasy, but still grounded in a weird kind of reality, and I loved the freedom of creating vibrantly abnormal things.”

One of Miller’s ground rules was to avoid any throwbacks to the earlier films – but even he succumbed to the nostalgia of Mel Gibson’s original leather jacket in The Road Warrior. Once that surfaced, the iconic jacket and shoulder pads were reimagined to conceptualize a new style for Tom Hardy’s Max.

Tom Hardy as Mad Max in Fury Road

From there, Beavan collaborated with Hardy to fashion a new Road Warrior for Fury Road. “Tom came in with a huge amount of his own ideas,” she relates, adding the costume team would ultimately duplicate Max’s get-up 20 more times to accommodate all the stunt performers, with an additional layer of protective gear.

Furiosa’s costume

Beavan collaborated extensively with Charlize Theron to choose Furiosa’s worn white top, slouch leather trousers, and the body armour covering her midsection – which is actually harnessed by horizontal bands of leather belts. The women believed the outfit would reflect the character’s basic needs, so that it was comfortable, utilitarian, formidable, and not restrictive in a fight.

Topping it off is the piece de resistance: a mechanical arm (crafted from salvage materials by Australian artist Matt Boug) since Furiosa has lost part of her arm.

Charlize Theron in Mad Max FURY ROAD

“Furiosa’s arm is a perfect example of imbuing found objects with artistry,” Miller says. “You can see spanners, crankshafts, parts of car engines. There’s a small motor on it from a toy airplane, which she uses to pump up the hydraulics should she need extra power.”

Theron saw Furiosa as someone who wouldn’t have had a lot of time for her appearance and after discussing it with Miller and hair/makeup designer Lesley Vanderwalt, decided to shave her hair off into that signature crop.

“I was a new mother; I was going to be in the desert; I thought, ‘We need to just shave my head,’” Theron says. “I was so excited that I called George, and he took a breath. Then, he said, ‘Yes,’ and we did it the next morning. Looking back, I can’t imagine doing this film any other way.”

FURY ROAD

And what of that grease on Theron’s forehead? Vanderwalt, who has worked with Miller since The Road Warrior, did it to add a level of status to Furiosa: “The highest ranking Imperators covered their foreheads with black grease and used metal and mineral dust to highlight it.”

The Wives’ costumes

As we see with Imperator Furiosa and the War Boys, skin paint plays an important role in Citadel society, especially where masks and armour are also used to put on a strong front. So it makes sense that the beautiful Wives would be as pure and natural as possible, as their flesh itself speaks of hope and the future of a new life.

“The Immortan thinks of them as his treasure, and he has protected them from all the poisons of the outside world,” notes Miller. “In a Wasteland inhabited by people eaten up by cancers, the women themselves had to be, in a sense, pristine.”

For their costumes, the (Wives) went to Beavan’s workshop to pick and choose from a variety of cotton and muslin cloth wraps, which were inspired by a ballet Miller had seen in which the dancers had been adorned in crepe bandages.

“The Wives have been living in a climate-controlled environment all their lives,” Beavan says. “So when they’re taken away from that, the idea is that they’re completely unsuitably dressed for the Wasteland.”

FURY ROAD

The Citadel

For everyone else at the Citadel, the body is a canvas where each individual paints, carves or wears his or her beliefs, origins and status. Masks are a status symbol, scars tell your past, clothes signal your status.

 

The Vuvalini – The Valkyrie

Megan Gale is The Valkyrie in Mad Max Fury Road

Lastly of course, the tribal women Furiosa and Max encounter along their way prove to be a very important part of Miller’s story here. Described by the film as “the last remaining vestiges of a matriarchal society”, the Vuvalini are made up of Megan Gale (as The Valkyrie) and Melissa Jaffer (as the Keeper of the Seeds), plus Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellerman and Christina Koch. Co-writer Lathouris calls the Vuvalini “the people who are most capable of bringing any kind of sanity to the world.”

For Theron, the introduction of a tribe like the Vuvalini illuminates Miller’s layered presentation of women in Mad Max: Fury Road.

“George has set up a fascinating dynamic with the women in this film,” says Theron. “Having these young girls escape with Furiosa and meet up with women in their sixties, seventies, eighties—who rage into the Road War on motorbikes— he’s really exploring women in this world at every age, and that’s not always how it goes down in a wall-to-wall action movie.”

*With thanks to Warner Bros for quotes, images and production info.

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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