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Costuming Meets Romance: An Interview with ‘Marry Me’ Costume Designer, Caroline Duncan

Caroline Duncan – Costume Designer

While watching one of the most dramatic seasons ever in The Bachelor history, I found myself needing to unwind and relax. That’s when all of a sudden…Marry Me appeared! Directed by Award-Winning Kat Coiro, it follows mega superstar Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) as she prepares for her wedding to fiancé and fellow musician Bastian (Maluma). The big day – which doubles as a concert and is being broadcasted live to the entire world – seems to be going well but unexpectedly takes a turn once Kat finds out that Bastian has been disloyal. After a moment of self-reflection, Kat decides to just say “yes” and asks Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), a total stranger, to marry her. What follows is a nostalgic journey about love, perseverance, and taking chances. 

This heartwarming rom-com was everything I needed and more! From the storyline to the music to the costumes, I fell in love! So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that The Art of Costume was being granted the opportunity to interview the talented costume designer behind it all. Caroline Duncan – who has worked on several notable projects including When They See Us, The Affair, and Servant – has played a major role in bringing this movie to life. We were able to meet up and discuss her path to becoming a costume designer, as well as what it’s like designing for Jennifer Lopez and her process behind several looks throughout the film!

Jada: Thank you for being here! I really appreciate it. To start, I’d love to know more about you. Could you please tell me about your career path? Was costume design always your passion?  

Caroline: Sure! I started doing costume design when I was in college. I went to a liberal arts school and didn’t particularly think I was going to end up doing design, but I loved theater and had always been writing and acting. Then I got to college and was like “no, acting is not for me.” So, *laughs* I tried on all the hats. I loved costume. As soon as I started to do it, it clicked, and it made a lot of sense for me because I was studying literature and psych; and it turns out that costume design is kind of like the marriage of character – an imaginary person and their psychology and how they express themselves through their clothing. That was when I was nineteen years old, and I didn’t really know that it could be a career.

Owen Wilson as Charlie Gilbert and Jennifer Lopez as Kat Valdez in Marry Me. Photo Courtesy of Peacock.

Then I went to grad school for costume and fashion to learn more about the craft of it and just was really, really fortunate. I started working as a PA quite young for really big costume designers. Ann Roth was my first boss! I kept at it and here I am! *laughs*

Jada: I’ve heard so many costume designers say that they didn’t even know a career in costume design was something they could do. Oh and I love Ann Roth, that’s really cool!  

Caroline: Of course. She’s a legend! 

Jada: She really is!  So from that point, what led you to designing for Marry Me?  

Caroline: I would say, the first ten years of my career I was getting hired to do TV shows that were very fashion forward and high concept fashion – which is funny, because I wasn’t a particularly fashion vocabulary kind of person. But I loved learning how to put on the stylist hat through the eyes of a costume designer, and I think that part of my CV is probably what was appealing to the folks on Marry Me.

In the last few years, I have been doing more character-based series, like The Affair. I’m doing one right now called Three Women…it’s really subtle. But a friend of mine had just worked with Jennifer and had designed Hustlers and he called me and was like, “they’re looking for a costume designer are you interested? Because I think Jennifer and you would really get along. I think you’d be a good fit with one another and you understand like subtleties of fashion.” So we met and I interviewed with the producers and the director. It was a nice, very easy kind of fit. I had some ideas for her character and for the supporting roles. Everyone was excited about and then we jumped in with very little prep! *laughs* I think we only had eight or nine weeks. Maybe it was more like nine or ten. It was not a lot though!

Jada: Oh wow! I also read that sometimes you had to work over video chat? 

Caroline: Yes! Jenn was at the end of her world tour and also doing PR for Hustlers at that time. I mean she’s always overextended, like she takes on the world! But she was not in New York and so we Zoomed or Facetimed or whatever we did back pre-COVID. It was mainly like a photo stream that I created, and I would just upload hundreds of images and when she had time, she would look through them and thumbs up things or comment on what she was responding to. I also worked very closely with her real-life stylist to ensure that I wasn’t pulling things that felt too close to things that Jenn has actually worn. I was carving out little subtle ways to really create a new pop star character and not just put Jennifer Lopez on screen as Jennifer Lopez. We had to find distinctions between her and Kat because they’re not the same.

Jennifer Lopez as Kat Valdez (left) wearing a Kangol cap and Owen Wilson as Charlie Gilbert (right) in Marry Me

Jada: I was wondering about that too, if you wanted Kat to be like JLo or very separate?

Caroline: We had to have a separation. There are not many people of Jennifer’s fame who exist in the world – people who have been in the public eye for such an admirably long-time. I mean, Jennifer’s been famous since she was like a teenager and I think that’s the overlap of Kat, right? The idea is that she also has been famous. She was discovered quite young and had this more manufactured, pop career when she was younger and is now really, really trying to push out and be taken very seriously as an artist. She wants the accolades, wants the awards that she deserves, and wants her peers to respect her new track.

The overlap is that there’s a history of styles that probably Kat has worn over the years, much like Jennifer, but especially in their street wear. Kat’s a little more, romantic and has a little bit more whimsy to her than Jenn does. We embraced this kind of nineties aesthetic, subtly, but pulled some nineties pieces in whenever we could like the little Kangol style caps. And there were some cuts that we put on her that were very Norma Kamali inspired, early nineties pieces.  

Jada: That’s interesting that you said you wanted some nineties pieces because the movie really reminded me of a ninety’s rom-com!

Caroline: Good! That means we’re good right? *laughs* It does feel like a very nostalgic movie in the best possible way. It’s just a really pure love story. It literally ends with the girl chasing the guy at the airport! I wanted Kat’s style to feel very timeless, which thank God we did that because we filmed this before COVID. Then they pushed the release, as everybody did, to see what was going to happen with theatrical releases.

The beginning conversations with Jennifer and the director felt like the big jumping off point for Kat’s style. We wanted it to feel very iconic and timeless in a way that I think a lot of rom-coms get mired into like a trend of 2002, or you watch it again and you’re like, that is clearly made in 2012. I think what’s nice about where we landed is, it doesn’t feel very specific to 2019. It just feels classic and beautiful and elegant, and it’ll hopefully hold up so that when we’re bingeing it in twenty years *laughs* on TNT or whatever, it’ll still feel relevant.   

Jennifer Lopez (center) as Kat Valdez performing onstage along with backup dancers in Marry Me. Photo Courtesy of Peacock.

Jada: *laughs* I love that! Now I wanted to dive a little into some of her specific looks. With the church cross outfit, the performance was very adventurous and risqué. Could you share a little bit about the thought process? Does JLo play a part in the conversation?  

Caroline: Yes, Jennifer played a heavy part in everything. She was a producer as well as the star and also produced all the music. She was very involved in the design of the costume, and she was on tour when we were doing it, so her stylists were incredibly helpful in having things put into production for me as they were with her and able to have things fit, and measured on her.

The idea behind it was always that there’s a provocative element where this is a number – it was her first hit so it’s probably twenty years old and it’s the number that everybody expects and wants to see at one of her concerts; and she’s been touring it since her first tour so it’s a look that has always been iconic to her character – but has evolved. She probably has always had some kind of dance wear with a cross on, but this is probably like the eighth evolution of it. So, we wanted it to feel still very stage show, Vegas, sparkly, and this is really the most risqué thing that she wears in the movie. That disparity between this moment when she’s free and she’s her own artist, you see a vestige of who she was coming up and then the next moment where she’s in her wedding gown, which is so restrictive, and so pure looking. This was so raunchy *laughs* and divisive I’m sure to a certain person but she was in this stained-glass outfit and just really, really free. 

Jada: I love how you always put thought into every outfit you make! There’s always a backstory behind it. And that’s a good point you make, about how she’s free this one moment and the very next she’s so restricted. With this next moment – the wedding scene – what was it like putting that together? Because the dress is gorgeous, and I love the angel wings that the background dancers wear.   

Caroline: The same girls who were just in naked latex outfits. *laughs* It’s funny, isn’t it?  

Jada: *laughs* Truly!

Front: Owen Wilson as Charlie Gilbert (left) and Jennifer Lopez as Kat Valdez (right) in Marry Me. Photo Courtesy of Peacock.

Caroline: God, the gown is almost like its own character! It had to be so many things. The most important is that it feels not like a wedding dress that an ordinary person would ever wear. It is so elaborate and so large, so voluminous. The skirt is so huge and extra sparkly that it really feels like it was born and designed to be put on a stage. The fact that it’s not white, that it’s this sort of champagne, rose gold felt right for both stage lights. It’s a wedding dress but it’s also a costume for her tour and it’s not her first marriage, which we later find out. The white just felt wrong for this moment. We get into a lot of white later on – when she marries Charlie, she goes into the bridal white a lot.

It felt also very romantic, like a princess dress. A cake topper dress is sort of how I described it to the director – but it has no movement. It’s so binding in the corset and then huge in the skirt, it feels like a Cinderella dress. And of course, psychologically and emotionally, that’s what we wanted from this dress. We wanted the dress to be bigger than she was; like the dress has taken control. The wedding is out of control and it’s not natural and it’s not real. It’s really restrictive. When she’s alone in her apartment you really feel how out of control this stunt, this lie of marriage had gotten and how lonely she is, living in this constantly photographed life.  

Jennifer Lopez as Kat Valdez watching Jimmy Fallon on television. Photo Courtesy of Peacock.

Jada: That’s very true. The scene where she’s just sitting on the ground, crying. It really gets to you because it’s like, oh my gosh, she has all of this, but yet, it’s this horrible moment. 

Caroline: Yeah, she’s alone and who’s going to help her get out of that dress?

Jada: This draws me back to an interview that you did about The Affair where you had to make different looks based on the character’s perspective. Now, even though you didn’t necessarily have to do that here, the thought of perspective really intrigued me and made me wonder, did Kat’s costumes change based off of whether she was with Bastian or Charlie?  

Caroline: Yeah! I was thinking about that recently, because there’s two dresses in the movie that are like little Easter eggs ⁠— kind of like foils for one another and one of them you see a lot of and one of them you barely see. But it’s the dress she wears to the semi-formal and then there’s a dress she wears later on, which you only see in like a quick blip, where she’s on a red carpet with Bastian; and they’re very similar dresses. One is the formal gown. She’s been through hair and makeup, and she’s got a fur; and it’s very, red carpet. The dress she wears to the semi-formal is really her. If she had had a prom, that’s what she would want to wear that a stylist didn’t pick out for her. That’s her sweet, but still sexy version of how people should dress when they go to a semi-formal. Like most people wouldn’t wear that, so it also keeps her a little out of touch with Charlie’s world, but it is a step towards trying to normalize a little bit.

It’s a good question as I was just thinking about this. There are these foils, these moments where she is very intentionally putting on a costume. It got really meta because as a costume designer, I had to think about her as a character, but also had to perform as her stylist for the movie. Kat Valdez has a stylist, so there’s some costumes where you have to think, “what would Kat just pull out of her closet and wear when she goes to the Hamptons with Charlie, what’s something she’s put together versus what’s an outfit that her stylist brought in.” So, it was funny to wear both hats as a costume designer. Fashion is a huge tool in our tool belt as costume designers, but it’s not our only tool.

Jada: I did want to talk about styling versus costume design. What were the challenges that you faced? Were they really different?  

Caroline: I have so much respect for stylists, especially stylists of the caliber that Jennifer has. Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn, they’re amazing, gifted human beings and also were so generous in sort of steering me in certain directions or introducing me to people in the fashion world to get stuff for Jennifer. But there’s a lot of overlap. You have to understand what fits, what works on a body, the construction of clothing, color story, all of that, and mood. But a stylist, more so than a costume designer is creating a moment. It’s a moment that sometimes is recorded or sometimes is photographed, but it’s just a moment and it doesn’t have to sustain. A costume is creating a moment, but it’s more creating a mood. It’s a brush stroke of an overall character and it has to work with and around all of the many complications of being an actor on a film set. It has to be cognizant of sound, stunt and how are they moving in the scene. What is the action in the scene? Something can feel beautiful and perfect, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense for a scene.

There is some overlap but there’s also a lot of space between the two as well. Then you’re creating a whole picture! When you’re a stylist, often you’re only worried about one person such as Katy Perry. You’re not worried about the people around her or the other people at the Met Gala. But when you’re the costume designer you are thinking about all the actors together making a picture. If we’re putting Jennifer in a pink, no one else can be in a pink. You’re controlling the entire palette and saturation of the scene and of all the other characters. They’re all little building blocks that together create a vignette.   

Jada: That’s so true, I didn’t even realize that! There’s so much to think about. When you are first creating costumes, do you have to read through the whole script first or do you just kind of design as the time goes?  

Caroline: You dive deeply into the script even before you would have an interview. You would do a very deep dive and then pull your ideas, images and references to talk to everybody. I would say there’s constantly revisions and new script pages that come out on every job. You have to go back to the script all the time. Sometimes I’ll read a script three times, I’ve got it in my head, I know it. Then I’ll move on to the design process and I’ll be really close to honing something in before a fitting. Then I’ll reread the scene and something new will occur to me or a rewrite will happen. Suddenly it doesn’t all make sense in the way that I thought it had and I have to adjust something. You really have to know the script because if you don’t, the actor won’t trust you. The actor is expecting that you know the work as much as they do, and that’s why they entrust you to help them find their character.

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Jada: When you’re trying to focus in on a character, for example, I’ll go back to Kat. I saw that she did wear a lot of monochromatic outfits. How did that come to be?  

Caroline: We wanted her to really just feel delineated from everyone around her. Firstly, I would say that monochromatic hues are sort of having a moment right now; and lots of nudes and colors that were less popular. But going back and trying to create this very iconic and classic and timeless palette for Kat, it felt like having a lot of mixed colors and a lot of bold colors on her wasn’t the way to go. Then that might connect us too much to 2019. Keeping her in these really beautiful, similar shades, monochromatic shades felt in a way, far more like old Hollywood. Then the world around her is chaotic! I mean Bastian’s costumes! Everybody around her is populated with contrasting fabrics and colors and so it also sort of sets her apart.

Jada: It’s interesting that you bring up Bastian. Did you ever take influence from Maluma’s stage presence, or did you try to do the same thing that you did with JLo, where you tried to separate them?  

Caroline: I tried to separate them! The overlap is that Maluma wears a lot of fashion forward, experimental fashion and that was what we were doing also on Bastian. But also, I was trying to sort of make him feel as threatening as possible *laughs* to Charlie and not even in an emasculating way because they’re so different that Charlie wouldn’t be threatened by Bastian being sexy or masculine – he’s just an alien to Charlie. He should just feel threatening in that he’s like a complete other. Everything about him is just huge, loud, sparkly and tattooed so I think we were just trying to be as playful as possible with him. Much like Jennifer, we put a lot of metallic on Bastian from the beginning and then Kat’s palette sort of softens and his never does. He hasn’t changed, *laughs* he’s still Bastian.   

Jada: *laughs* He definitely does not change! Before we wrap up, I did want to ask one more question. If there was one outfit you could choose throughout the whole movie that you would personally want to wear or that was your favorite, what would it be?  

Caroline: I really love the outfit that she wears when they go to the Hamptons house. That pistachio green, cashmere and silk set. There’s something about that. It feels so easy and so snuggly and warm and elegant in a way that like, in real life, one would never have a reason to own that set. I think it was Sally LaPointe, like head to toe and then we brought in a Juan Carlos Obando trench coat, and it just looks so effortless and comfortable. Easy, comfortable and effortless! My personal style of all of Kat’s wardrobe would be in that world. You wouldn’t see me walking around in the metallic, foiled leotard from the first scenes. *laughs

Jada: *laughs* I love that outfit because it was so her, but at the same time it still had a hint of Hollywood in it. Thank you so much! I really appreciated this and I’m grateful that you took the time to meet with me.  

Caroline: It was lovely to talk to you and I hope we get to talk again another time!

Jada: Yes! I know you’re working on something currently, so maybe we can meet back about that?  

Caroline: Yes, it’s really good! It’s for Showtime. If you liked The Affair, it’s so good. It’s called, Three Women. Lots of good stars in it, so it’s really fun! It’ll be out in the Fall.   

It was such a pleasure to meet Caroline! I want to thank her again for chatting with me and sharing so much about this film and the wonderful world of costume design. If you haven’t yet, please go check out her work in this film. It’s absolutely fantastic!

You can stream Marry Me now on Peacock.

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