Film's Fashion Takes Page From Reporter's Notebook

April 17, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,

Every reporter has a story about wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time - business suit while covering a hurricane, ripped jeans in a federal courtroom - and I suspect that Della Frye, our State of Play heroine, might tell colleagues about the time she clacked into a hospital-turned-crime scene in trendy high heels.

I winced at this scene, though I also noted her striking black trench coat and sophisticated gray sweater. There's a reason I responded strongly to the fashion in this movie about journalists tracking a major political scandal with murderous consequences: The reporters were styled after my colleagues at The Baltimore Sun, and Della, played by Rachel McAdams, after me.

Costume designer Jacqueline West said she wanted reporters to see State of Play, which stars Russell Crowe as a well-worn police reporter, and "identify with the look." It worked. The movie captures reporter style - which is to say fashion-neutral, yet endearing in its own way.

When the movie was in development, West asked her friend Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun's movie critic, for snapshots of reporters at work. The movie is set in Washington, but West said Baltimore's hipper, more individualistic approach to clothes was a better fit for the script. Plus, our newsroom is filled with odd characters. West said Sun employees served as models for most of the on-screen reporters.

I barely remember the day a photographer showed up to the newsroom. I think my desk mate struck a couple of poses, kicking his Wallaby-shoed feet on his desk or tipping his chewed-up ball cap, but I probably just looked up from my computer and gave a half-smile. Talking to West last week, I learned I'd been wearing a shift dress or jumper over a long-sleeved shirt, dark tights and knee-high boots - probably a dinner-date dress repurposed as work attire.

West said she and McAdams were struck by my "seriousness." Describing me when I talked to her last week, West used forms of the word "serious" five times. I was a city crime reporter when the photos were taken.

They liked my glasses, my dark hair and my 1970s-ish layering, especially since director Kevin Macdonald wanted to invoke the feel of All the President's Men and other classic journalism flicks.

For months, West said, she had my picture on her desk. Inspired by me, McAdams, blond at the time, dyed her hair brown and insisted on wearing glasses in some scenes of the movie, over the objections of studio executives who despise bespectacling their starlets.

Meanwhile, I kept writing and reporting, unaware of my small behind-the-scenes role in State of Play.

I've been a reporter for eight years, and I consider myself neither fashion-forward nor out of style. For this reason, I felt bad for McAdams. It would have been much more fun to play the exquisitely clothed politician's wife (Robin Wright Penn).

My closet is overrun with cotton dresses, sweaters and blazers. I wear lots of black, gray and brown. I never remember to put on jewelry and infrequently take the time to blow-dry my long hair, let alone put it in the fancy French-braid updo that McAdams sports in one scene. I've been experimenting with fancy shoes, but it's not working out. Too uncomfortable. I almost always wear knee-high boots, the perfect compromise between frumpy loafers and blister-inducing pumps. Long after knee-high boots are out of style (probably now), I will still be wearing them.

Whenever I consider donning something dainty, I remember Sept. 24, 2001, when I ran around College Park covering the aftermath of a tornado, in wobbly high heels and a long, tight pencil skirt. A very unpleasant, but typical, mistake for a new reporter.

Della's unfortunate shoes in the hospital scene are a nod to the fact that she's a young reporter - a political gossip blogger, actually - hot on the trail of her first "real" story. She's racing to keep up with Crowe's Cal McAffrey, a 15-year veteran reporter with a chip on his shoulder.

The unusual duo represent journalism's past and future, working together at an imagined failing urban newspaper called The Washington Globe. Cal is dressed one rung above a homeless person. You imagine him dressing in the dark, probably on his way to a crime scene, absent-mindedly grabbing a flannel shirt and jeans from a pile of clothing near his never-made bed. There really are reporters who look like this.

Della, at least at the beginning of the movie, is a bit too stylish and professional - all feminized menswear and argyle sweaters. She tries to mimic the upper-crusty style of editor Cameron Lynne, played by Helen Mirren. In real life, bloggers, paid in pennies and coffee, wear old jeans and ill-fitting tops.

But as the movie progresses, Della ditches the Washingtonienne-worthy garb, as well as her blog, for more sensible clothes as she digs deep to uncover corruption. In the final third of the movie, she is wearing a green cotton dress over a brown shirt and knee-high boots (yes!).

West said this clothing transition was intentional, meant to show that Della was becoming a serious reporter.

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