Creating the Costumes of Nightmare Alley: Clairvoyants, Carnivals, and Cate Blanchett

Creating the Costumes of Nightmare Alley: Clairvoyants, Carnivals, and Cate Blanchett

As Moira Rose once told Alexis Rose, my favorite season…awards! I love it all, from the red carpet glam, voting campaigns, to celebrating with loved ones in the mutual love for the arts. At this moment, I am referring specifically to the 2022 Academy Awards. The Academy Awards allow us to reflect on our favorite films of the past year and celebrate the incredible artists who brought the film to life. My favorite films were none other than Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. Let’s dive into the costumes of Nightmare Alley.

Illustrations by Greg Hopwood

Nightmare Alley is a cinematic masterpiece enhanced by its stunning colors, enchanting sets, a legendary cast, and above all else, flawless costumes. Costume designer Luis Sequeira, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Shape of Water, is nominated once again for bringing to life the costumes of Nightmare Alley. I can’t underscore enough how deserving Luis is of this year’s award. So instead of going on and on about why I love Luis’s costumes for Nightmare Alley, I will show you my top favorites. Step right up and revel in the brilliance that is the costumes of Nightmare Alley.

Listen to our interview with Luis Sequeira on The Art of Costume Blogcast!


Stanton Carlisle – Introduction Plaid

Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The first costume we see in this film is Stan’s travel suit. I love this costume because it sets up the first anchor in Stan’s journey. Stan is trying to escape his troubled life, bringing nothing but a duffle bag and the clothes on his back. His clothes are a bit baggy and very worn, hinting at how Stan is down bad heading to the carnival for the first time.

Clem Hoatley – Carnival Costume

Willem Dafoe as Clem Hoatley – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

I am obsessed with the pinstripe carnival suits Clem and Stan wear. The aged, dull color combination of yellow and red works so well together in embracing the carnival’s camp value and becoming a part of the set. It’s also a very recognizable silhouette, meaning when you see the jacket, you know this character is a person of authority in the carnival.

Zeena the Seer –  Performance Costume

Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Honestly, the Zeena the Seer performance costume is one of the best costumes of the year. That dusty velvet reads like a antique. One would think that this costume has lived in a trunk for many, many years. The colors and fabrics combined with the excellence of Toni Collette create a unstoppable trio.

Molly Cahill – Black Performance Dress

Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. Costume Concept Art by Greg Hopwood.

This dress that Molly wears during Stan’s performance is just sickening. It’s so good! Of course, I am obsessed with the fabric. But the butterflies are such a intricate detail. It’s as if the dress is revealing Molly’s state of mind, being a of utmost love and beauty yet at this this moment Stan is really controlling and using her. If you want to see this dress in person (duh) then I would recommend heading to the FIDM Museum where several of the mentioned costumes are being presented on exhibition.

Dr. Lilith Ritter – Shadow Gown

Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Phew! My favorite costume of the film is this mysterious velvet dress seen in the shadows of Stan’s performance. This caped fantasy is stunning by all accounts. The velvet works in the dim light in all of the right places while the silhouette fits Cate Blanchett in all the right ways. It’s just too good and I’ve made it a point to tell Luis Sequeira how I feel about this dress every time we meet.

Stanton Carlisle – Performance Suit

Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Stan takes on a new look when he takes his seer show to the city! This suit is so exquisite. The tailoring on this suit is just so impressive and really has that signature Luis Sequeira look. Seeing that costume blindfold combined with the elaborate set design really is such a treat for the eyes.

Molly Cahill – Red Coat

Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

I don’t think I have ever seen a costume more made for an actor than this red coat look for Rooney Mara. Seriously, this costume is very Molly as much as it is very Rooney and I love it! Molly is frustrated with the way her life with Stan is turning out so you see her essentially glowing with anger (in the kindest way because Molly is so sweet) which is reflected in the red coat contrasting across the snow.

Dr. Lilith Ritter – Office Suit

Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Ah! This suit! Dr. Lilith Ritter has quite the wardrobe. When Stan first visits Ritter she has on this very tailored, structured black suit and it’s absolutely stunning. She is a very strong, but mysterious character so she has on these very visible broad shoulders and this beautiful golden brooch. These Cate Blanchett scenes will never get old. How was she not nominated for an Academy Award, I’ll never understand?

Dr. Lilith Ritter – Office Look

Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Another Ritter look so soon? Duh! When Ritter opens up those office doors in this beautiful satin top and olive green skirt, I was feeling faint! Luis Sequeira developed these characters in a way where you are excited every time the scene changes over because you are looking forward to seeing the costume changes.

Molly Cahill – Dorrie’s Spirit 

Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill – Nightmare Alley. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

What an insane scene! In Stan’s terrible last act, he uses Molly once again to take advantage of Grindle by staging the materialization of Dorrie’s spirit. Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well! However, this costume was incredible. Dorrie died in 1901, the end of the Victorian era. This costume did work to make Molly look as though she was a Victorian ghost in all white. What I thought was striking was the use of white with the glow of the crimson red blood. The costume paired with the pale beauty of Rooney Mara really did lead to a believable scam.


Nightmare Alley is now on HBO Max!


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