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Sofia Coppola, and the Uniform as Armor

In an exclusive excerpt from A24’s How Directors Dress, writer Claire Marie Healy explores Coppola’s on-set wardrobe.

by Claire Marie Healy

Sofia Coppola grew up in the spotlight. Much of its shine has been focused on what she wears.

There’s the envious gossip you’d expect to coalesce around such a famous daughter-of, like when Courtney Love admitted to stealing a Chanel lipstick from a 16-year-old Coppola’s “Sistine Chapel of a bedroom” because she thought she had too much already (she fixed her karma years later by leaving the director a Chanel lip gloss at the reception of The Mercer). Then there’s the fashion press, like when Suzy Menkes, faintly patronizing, noted the then-23-year-old’s attendance with father Francis Ford Coppola at the Anna Sui Fall/Winter 1994 show, “sugar-pink cardigan primly buttoned, eyes bright with excitement.” Or, most lovingly, there are the anecdotes of a worried and proud mother, as found in the diaries of Eleanor Coppola. When Eleanor, who has shot behind-the-scenes documentaries of all her daughter’s films, described Coppola’s “jeans, Vans, cotton shirt, thick sweater” and “bad cough” on the first morning of shooting Marie Antoinette (2006), she noted how she looked “too small and unprepossessing to be the director of a $40 million movie.”

In the chaos of growing up in the extended Coppola universe, there is fashion, and there are clothes. The former is pure pleasure, the latter is a coping mechanism. “A kind of uniform helps,” Coppola has said, in her succinct way. The uniform, such as it is, consists of skinny jeans, trainers, V-neck sweaters, and, more recently, jumpsuits, such as a denim button-up made by Sonia Rykiel creative director Julie de Libran for the New Orleans production of The Beguiled (2017). But the through-line is Coppola’s button-up cotton shirts from Parisian brand Charvet, the traditional men’s shirtmaker who tailor-makes them for her frame for each project.

With the cast of The Beguiled.Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

You’ll see Coppola in these pale blue or white slimline shirts, standing out among the era-specific dress of her characters––those women and girls who always seem to wait in the wings of one another’s stories, because they are usually those who have desired too much. On The Beguiled, she is surrounded by her actresses who wear Civil War dresses and petticoats in washed-out pastels; a few years earlier on the set of The Bling Ring (2013), the director kicks back with her actresses in Paris Hilton’s actual house—the only one in the room without badly-done extensions. And even on set of The Virgin Suicides (1999), when Coppola still had one kitten heel in ’90s It-girl separates, we see the first-time director holding a light meter up to her four Lisbon sisters on the front lawn: they in four shapeless sacks, she in a loose pale blue short-sleeve shirt not too different from the kind Satyajit Ray wore on his own summer shoots

Coppola’s reputation for quietude is at odds with an uncompromising nature; her reputation for a specific aesthetic in moviemaking belies the years of experimentation that formed it. “I could do a little of this and a little of that, but I never had the patience to study one thing and become an expert at it,’’ she admitted of her twenties in 2000.“ I was mixed up about what I was supposed to do and afraid I would wake up one day not having done anything with my life. I realize now it helps to be a generalist if you want to make films.” With her own appearance reproduced and analyzed closely since birth, it is no wonder she became“intensely interested” (as her mother notes) in fashion: a world she felt so at home in, it’s almost as though she had simply stepped into a slightly bigger version of her father’s costume departments that she used to rifle through. Marc Jacobs was a certainty, which helped. “I didn’t know what I was doing with my life,” she said of being drawn to her longtime friend’s designs, “but I knew I wanted to be in those clothes.”

Sofia Coppola at an Anna Sui Fashion Show in March 1993.Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

It’s this understanding of images, and being an image, that have so profoundly shaped Coppola’s cinematic point of view, in which she creates worlds of boundless aesthetic pleasures and performs a serious reading of their surfaces. As critic Anna Backman Rogers has written, what Coppola reveals with the satisfyingly girlish morsels she presents to us is “the process by which an image comes to be meaningful culturally,” that is, “how images function as clichés that, in turn, inform our understanding of relations of power.”

Wondering in her diaries why her daughter, as a foreigner, had turned to the hugely challenging subject of a young French queen, Eleanor Coppola correctly identifies the parallels between her daughter and her three primary protagonists up to that point: Lux in The Virgin Suicides, Charlotte in Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. “Sofia is part of all of these women,” she writes. “Growing up she was, in a way, a princess in Francis’ kingdom. On his sets she was treated as the adored daughter of the boss, a child of a celebrity. She was not seen as a thinking, feeling person with her own identity and acute perceptions. Sofia worked hard to survive and to develop herself…[she] weaves reflections of [that] experience into her films.”

A uniform becomes more necessary as moviemaking becomes a life. It’s while filming Marie Antoinette in Versailles that Coppola first publicly cited Charvet’s shirts. It’s almost as though the more traditionally—and elaborately—feminine her characters on screen are, the stronger she desires to adhere to her own playbook, one that favors simple shirting over frills and bows. “I like to have a bunch when I’m shooting so I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing,” she told Self-Service magazine of the Charvets that year.

With husband Thomas Mars at the Marie Anoinette premiere.Toni Anne Barson Archive/WireImage/Getty Images

It’s fascinating to me that just when Sofia Coppola was literally and figuratively inserting Converse shoes into French history, she was also doing her part to keep the most traditional of French ateliers in business. This serves as a parallel with the doomed queen herself, upon whose purchases and influence the textile industry in France depended. (Marie’s turn from French silk to American cotton was one reason the public turned against her, sparking an anger that would lead to her execution.) Charvet itself dates from 1838, only 45 years after the queen’s death, and their bespoke fabrics and artisanal attention to detail are akin to those of dressmakers from another time.

In Eleanor Coppola’s documentary of the making of Marie Antoinette, the younger Coppola wears a blue shirt with skinny jeans as she directs a scene with ’60s icon Marianne Faithful (she seems nervous; Coppola’s soothing voice tells her she’s doing a good job). Elsewhere, Coppola wears a striped shirt, which looks a little more like a pajama top, with a black cashmere scarf. At one point, she also wears a skeleton hoodie, like Donnie Darko, and a Hysteric Glamour T-shirt, like a Depop girl; this, much like Coppola as a director, is a set wardrobe still in transition. “When you direct,” she has said, “it’s the only time you get to have the world exactly as you want it.” As carefully commissioned as they may be, the shirts feel like a natural graduation from the fashion-play of her youth—those years where she “didn’t know what she was doing”—to the serious business of directing. Which brings us back to her dad, Francis, and his uniform; and Fellini, and his.

In one of my favorite photographs of the director on set, Sofia Coppola cuts through the middle of Marie Antoinette’s masked ball scene, surrounded by a silk-draped cast of hundreds (and a couple of techies in low-rise denims). It’s just one among many shots by an on-set photographer, Leigh Johnson, but it’s quite beautiful, lit much like Barry Lyndon. Though she’s busy directing, and must have as many competing thoughts in her head as there are extras on her set, Coppola––in a crumpled white shirt, exhausted––looks up at the camera, beaming.

How Directors Dress is available for purchase now on