Boyhood is a 12-year epic in its finished form, but really, the parts that comprise its whole are rather understated—a series of genuine looks at everyday life and adolescence. Case in point: the film’s costume design. Kari Perkins, who was nominated for Excellence in Contemporary Cinema at Tuesday’s Costume Designer Guild Awards, designed for real people wearing real clothes.
It makes sense, then, that Perkins found the whole process to be very natural. Director Richard Linklater, who received the CDG’s Distinguished Collaborator Award, had a rough outline of where the film would go. Every year, he would flesh it out further, but there was always room for change and growth. (Perkins said, for example, that the filmmaking team didn’t anticipate its lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, becoming an edgy teenager. He did, and it was worked into the script.) This approach extended its reach to the costumes, too, which evolved with the storylines, characters, and, to a certain extent, the actors who played them.
“I didn’t want to guess ahead of time, or try to predict what any kind of trend was going to be,” Perkins says of her approach. “I tried to stay very much in the moment. Every year, I would try to choose fashions that, styles that would indicate the fashion trend of the moment without seeming too trendy because the characters were not the kind of people that would just go to the mall and buy clothes to wear. They were very bohemian and I wanted to really capture that.”
In the earlier years, for example, we see Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in patched denim jeans, and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a peasant skirt. Both scream early-mid 2000s, but neither were overtly trendy. (We don’t see any trucker hats, for example.) This is exactly why the costumes in Boyhood work. Perkins wanted to make sure they were of the moment without being too of the moment, and that they added to the story without detracting from it.
“I didn’t want the clothes to play a character,” she says. “I really wanted the clothes to be a part of it, a really subtle part, but enough to really help carry it through the year.”
One costume motif that carried Mason (Coltrane) through the film were variations of a striped, blue-green shirt in his younger years (see main image). This shirt wasn’t meant to be a statement on the era—the film was shot between 2002 and 2014—but rather to represent Mason’s youthfulness. Perkins used these shirts in the first two thirds of the film, but it’s noticeably absent in the latter third.
One reason for that is that, on occasion, Perkins let the actors choose some of their costumes, and Coltrane naturally gravitated toward hoodies, plaids, and graphic t-shirts, in place of the striped, blue-green shirts, as he got older. One of the final shirts we see Mason in is a graphic t-shirt with trippy, artistic eyeballs on it, which came straight out of Coltrane’s closet—a gift from his girlfriend, according to Perkins.
Olivia and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) don’t necessarily have a specific type of clothing as a through line, but every year they both took gradual steps to look more adult. As Olivia gets closer and closer to becoming a professor, her style gets more professional—ditching hip-hugging Dickies for pants and blazer. Hawke’s character went from being the edgy, rocker type to a minivan-driving, sweater-wearing dad. His transformation, in particular, is comedic, but it feels real.
“I love that even in the following years, you see him at Mason’s graduation and he’s got an expensive suit on and was looking so normal compared to how edgy he was before,” Perkins says. “It’s interesting. I think we just do that too in our lifetimes. There are times when we’ll assume a persona and go wait a minute, that’s not me. Or, maybe that is me now.”
Like Boyhood has a way of feeling both contemporary and historical, in its normality, it captures the evolution of its characters, and their style. “I always felt when we would look back on this movie—five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now—it would be so dated, so perfectly in its little time capsule.”