Romeo + Juliet’s Costume Designer Reflects On The Film’s Fashion, 25 Years Later
From hidden messages to custom Prada.
When Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes first locked eyes during their iconic fish tank meet-cute in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the Shakespearean love story, it was game over for anyone who thought they’d be unaffected by the centuries-old teenage tragedy. After all, it’s been adapted time and time again. For the love-at-first-sight scene, costume designer Kym Barrett put Danes in a white gown and angel wings and for DiCaprio, a knight costume — both looks that have been copied by fans every Halloween since the film debuted more than two decades ago. They’ve also been referenced in other pop culture moments, including HBO’s Euphoria and Halsey’s music video for “Now or Never.”
But the lovers’ looks are just a small part of the costume design pie. The Montague and Capulet boy-gangs wore colorful Hawaiian shirts, cross necklaces, ornate gun holsters, and leather vests. The wardrobe was opulent and beautifully garish, yet somehow timeless. Barrett, who is also the costume designer behind The Matrix movies, Us, Aquaman, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, worked closely with Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin to create the wildly colorful world in which the Capulets inhabit.
“We really dissected what Shakespeare was trying to say, and how we wanted the imagery to support those words and tell a visual story so that the audience had time to digest the Shakespeare language and not be locked out of it,” Barrett tells NYLON during a phone interview. “We wanted them to straight away be drawn into this version of Romeo and Juliet, in our time with these young characters that people could identify with, even in their divisive religious culture. I think one of the strengths of the movie is that our characters were very clearly drawn and strong, and in the style of the movie we were making, that was appropriate.”
DiCaprio and Danes portrayed the ill-fated young lovers with such genuine tenderness that it could break even the most bitter and jaded of hearts, but it wasn’t just the two leads who were able to translate that heavy Elizabethan English into something any plebe could understand. The film featured memorable performances from Harold Perrineau (in glorious drag), John Leguizamo (as one of the most fashionable villains of all time), and a baby Paul Rudd in what was probably the only cringey role in his career (aka Juliet’s dorky gentleman caller, Dave Paris). Aside from the exceptional cast, the film was a highly stylized feast for the eyes, complete hyperkinetic technicolor visuals, a contemporary soundtrack (The Cardigans! Garbage!), and costumes that we’re still fantasizing about 25 years later.
Ahead, Barrett shares all of the details with 14 fun fashion facts about the film, from hidden messages in Danes’ angel costume to DiCaprio’s Prada suit.
Danes’ angel dress had a secret message embroidered on it.
After reading the play, Barrett decided that Romeo and Juliet’s costumes should directly reference them as being an “angel” and a “knight,” respectively. But she also incorporated the “angel” line in a Phantom Thread-type of moment. “On Juliet’s dress, which I don’t think you can see, I printed written lines from the script in white. Romeo says in the script, ‘Oh, speak again, bright angel,’ which is why I dressed her as an angel, but I also printed that dialogue from that scene into her dress with white print,” explains Barrett. “I tried to do things for the actors that only they could see or have as their own thing. I thought that it would be an important kind of touchstone for them to have, things like pieces of jewelry and writing engraved on their guns, and in the Capulets’ case, it’s scriptures.”
DiCaprio’s wedding suit was custom made by Miuccia Prada.
For Romeo and Juliet’s impromptu wedding, DiCaprio wore a blue suit custom made by Miuccia Prada. “Ms. Prada was really kind enough to make us a suit for Leonardo for the wedding,” says Barrett. “Being Australian, we weren’t really in the fashion world yet, but everywhere we went, people helped us, so it was a pretty cool moment in time.” (This would be the first time Prada would collaborate with Luhrmann; she’d also work with him and Martin on 2013’s The Great Gatsby, adapting around 40 dresses from the Prada and Miu Miu archives into sequin and crystal-embellished flapper dresses.)
To complement DiCaprio’s Prada suit, Barrett put Danes in a white cocktail dress, modeling it on the type of silhouette that was popular at the time. “They didn’t have a lot of time to get ready for a secret wedding. So I thought it should be a very simple, little white dress,” she explains. “I didn’t want the wedding to be about the costumes; the wedding had to be just about them.”
Dolce & Gabbana hooked Barrett up with outfits for the extras.
“I did rely on people from the fashion industry to help us in certain ways,” says Barrett. “Dolce & Gabbana were very generous in giving me old stock to help me populate Verona Beach because we had a very tiny budget.” She says that the D&G pieces she used had a “Latin, Baroque kind of vibe,” which complemented the Capulets, who wore Western-inspired gear with religious imagery and decorative, quilted bulletproof vests.
Almost everything was custom made by Barrett’s team, which allowed them to add special touches.
Barrett says that aside from Romeo’s Prada suit and a couple of other pieces, “every costume you see on anyone who speaks” was made in their workroom. This included anything from the Capulets’ vests to the Montague boys’ hand-painted Hawaiian shirts, along with the extravagant party costumes and right down to Tybalt’s (Leguizamo) cowboy boots, which had cats sculpted on the heels — perfect for the Prince of Cats himself. “Everything was touched by a human hand. Everything was painted, everything was embellished, everything was aged,” says Barrett. Filming in Mexico City gave Barrett an advantage, too, as the location is “an incredible place for artisans,” and she had access to talented milliners, shoemakers, glovemakers, and embroiderers.
“I don’t really get hired to do jobs where you go shopping; I get hired to do jobs where I make things from the beginning. And my favorite, favorite part is just meeting people who are incredibly talented and can make amazing things,” explains Barrett. “I think that power comes from feeling subconsciously that a human hand-painted or embroidered something. It puts a spell into the costumes, and it adds an extra layer of something that the audience subconsciously can connect to.”
The Hawaiian shirts had references and foreshadowing.
“We were trying to think what the Montagues would dress like. They’re just as religious [as the Capulets], but they’re also a different gang. I wanted them to feel like Miami Beach, like they probably surfed, they went to the beach, they wore Hawaiian shirts, they maybe could have gone into the military,” says Barrett. The result was a complete juxtaposition of the Capulets’ Latin cowboy style.
Barrett put the Montague dudes in brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, accessorized with dog tags and lots of jewelry. She also found the blue Japanese blossom-printed shirt that Romeo borrows from Father Laurence and wears through the end of the film at a shop in Miami, but everything else was hand-painted by Barrett’s team. The boys have references to Verona Beach, such as palm trees, the enormous Jesus statue, and other religious icons. However, Romeo’s shirt has other illustrations, such as the flaming heart (one of the movie’s recurring symbols) and lilies, which foreshadowed the movie’s tragic ending as the final scene shows Juliet holding the flowers when Romeo finds her seemingly dead in the church.
Overall, Barrett wanted Romeo and Juliet to dress in a less distracting way.
Compared to the rest of the cast who were dressed more colorful and flamboyantly, Danes and DiCaprio’s costumes were meant to be more subdued. While Romeo did sport his vivid Hawaiian shirts, he also wore suits and didn’t have his hair dyed or in a buzz cut like his cohorts. Juliet wore a lot of white, a striking contrast to the darker hues that her cousin Tybalt and his crew donned. (Imagine if Danes was more of a goth?!)
“They were so young and so beautiful. A lot of the time, I really wanted their faces and their youthfulness to be in front of the canvas,” says Barrett. “It was all about what was going on in their faces and in their eyes. Because those are the characters most people identify with — young, old, everybody’s had one of those super intense love affairs.”
The characters’ party costumes represented their “true selves.”
Barrett says that the costumes some of the characters wore were sort of a clue to the characters’ true selves. Tybalt is a devil, Lady Capulet is Cleopatra, and Lord Capulet is dressed as a Roman emperor in a purple toga. “In his mind, he was in control and had power over everybody else,” says Barrett. “His wife was dressed as Cleopatra, who was having an affair with a Roman general, and indeed she was having an affair with John Leguizamo’s character. So we were seeing everyone through the eyes of the drugs — since everyone was on drugs or alcohol or whatever. But we we were seeing people for their true selves and who they thought they were in their own minds.”
The party was a big ol’ Shakespearean Easter egg.
Many of the party looks also paid homage to The Bard. While Lord and Lady Capulet were dressed as Shakespearean characters, so were many of the extras, giving sort of a meta nod to the scene. “I tried to populate the party with characters from Shakespeare’s plays,” explains Barrett. “If you look at the party guests, you’ll see that most of them were A Midsummer Night’s Dream characters. But I think in those days, we didn’t call them Easter eggs, right? It was just part of what we did; it wasn’t intentionally planting Easter eggs. But when I did Us, Jordan wanted to plant Easter eggs, that was a fun part of the process for him them, whereas when we did Romeo + Juliet, it was just part of what we felt would strengthen the visual story.” (During the fish tank scene, you can see a man at the urinal dressed in Renaissance wear, which is supposed to be William Shakespeare.)
Mercutio’s sheer shirt was symbolic.
With his unforgettable drag performance singing “Wild Hearts” at the costume party, Mercutio’s look was one of the best in the film. But aside from his sequined costumes, his sheer shirt stood apart and had a special meaning, according to Barrett. “Harold is, of course, a beautiful person, as well as a great actor, and I wanted you to see how vulnerable he was, so I used sheer fabric a lot of the time with him,” she explains. “It was like a veil; we could relate to him and he didn’t wear any armor, and that’s why he in the end was one of the strongest and the most heroic characters in the show, because he let his true self out.” For Mercutio, Barrett forwent the typical Hawaiian shirt in order to make him stand out from his Montague brethren. “He was different, and he embodied the better traits of both of those groups, but he was unfortunately sacrificed,” she says.
Juliet’s school girl costume had a personal connection to Barrett.
During the scene where Juliet confronts the priest, she’s wearing a beret and a Catholic school girl uniform, consisting of a dress with a Peter Pan collar. While the outfit underscores the movie’s religious subtext, it’s also a personal nod to Barrett’s own past. The designer modeled it after her own school uniform that she wore as a girl in Australia. “It was very simple and classic but had a little bit of a renegade. She was a cloistered girl, very protected, and from a rich family,” she says. “I went to an all-girls Church of England, Anglican school, and our uniform hadn’t changed for 50 or 60 years. So I wanted the uniform to feel a bit like that. She was a very traditional girl in the middle of Miami of a parallel universe, which is two very different worlds.”
The cross was a recurring theme with its own double meaning.
From neon crosses in the church, to the + in the film’s title, crosses were abundant, as both a symbol of Catholic kitsch and a nod to “the pair of star-cross’d lovers.” There are so many throughout the film, you could consider them Luhrmann’s own version of a hidden Mickey. Other crosses are the many necklaces the guys wear, a cross shaved into the head of a Capulet, gun charms, and the crucifix Juliet gives to Romeo after their first meeting.
The cast and crew got a replica of the movie’s wedding ring after filming.
The overall design process was very integrated, explains Barrett, but the wedding bands that Romeo and Juliet wore were designed by Martin. “I was aiming to complement and integrate with Catherine’s production design to create a seamless osmosis of style,” she says. Engraved with “R+J” and the line “I love thee” on the inside, the rings quickly became a coveted piece of jewelry that fans would then copy themselves, which is why it’s not surprising that you can find numerous replicas on Etsy. Oftentimes cast and crew on movies are given a souvenir after filming is complete, and for Romeo + Juliet, it was the ring. “The ring was an important thing. There was a lot of discussion about what the ring looked like and what we wrote in the ring. We all got a keepsake at the end, which I think was great and a lovely thing to have,” shares Barrett.
Barrett and Martin had cameos as maids in the movie.
It’s always fun when someone from the crew pops up in a cameo in the film they’re working on — see Stan Lee’s legendary Marvel cameos — and there were a few in Romeo + Juliet, as well, particularly from Barrett and Martin. The two show up as maids dressing Lady Capulet as Cleopatra as she’s getting ready for the party. An absolutely fitting scene.