The recently released movie, Water For Elephants, a period drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, owes much of its opulent feel and historical flavor to its costume designer, Jacqueline West. A local luminary, Jacqueline got her start here in Berkeley as a boutique owner and fledgling designer.
Back in 1990, as a lowly college student, I worked one of my first gigs at an avant-garde clothing store across from Cafe Fanny on the corner of Cedar St. and San Pablo Ave. Every morning on my break, I sprinted across the street and queued up for my steaming cafe au lait. Soon I began to recognize the "regulars", a group of Berkeley's movers and shakers who came to the cafe daily for sustenance and social communion. Among this set, tucked quietly into a slot against the bar, was Jacqueline West, the now illustrious Oscar-nominated costume designer.
Wearing her usual uniform--a black blazer, crisp white blouse, and jeans--Jacqueline carried herself with a quiet elegance that bespoke confidence and purpose. Her radiant blond hair fell to her shoulders in waves and served as a beacon for my eye. I could locate her immediately from my place in line, sipping her coffee thoughtfully while making notes in her Filofax. I was intrigued then (as I still am today) by her obvious, almost palpable, creative energy.
At that time, Jacqueline owned a boutique in Berkeley on Gilman Street. It was there that she created and sold her eponymous "Identikit by Jacqueline West" line. Little was I aware then that she was on the cusp of launching her film career.
West got her feet wet in film by working as a creative consultant on Phillip Kaufman's, Henry and June, travelling with him to France in 1990. She worked with him again on Rising Sun (1993), and for a third time on Quills (2000) for which she garnered her first Academy Award nomination. West received another Oscar nod for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008 and, in an interview with Joel Amos, West laughingly admits that, "Brad (Pitt) calls me a method costumer. That's because I get so into character."
It is precisely that devotion to historical accuracy, West's special ability to investigate the origins of character through the lens of costuming, which makes her “a bit of a detective”
and such an asset to any movie. She told Amos, "I've always felt that wardrobe is the first place an actor starts feeling his character."
In Water For Elephants, that sentiment seems almost tangible. The characters are
painted with the patina of the period and their costumes evoke the essence of
1930’s circus life. West has paid careful attention to the historical context
of the characters and, as she explained to MTV.com, attempts to use the color
of her fabrics as a mirror that reflects their emotional development. West
explains that Witherspoon’s character, Marlena, for example, wears a red gown
midway through the film which symbolizes “her infatuation with Rob…I thought
that’s red for amore”.
Whatever project she tackles, it seems Jacqueline West has established herself as a Hollywood heavyweight, a costume designer whose uncompromising attention to detail, commitment to research, and aesthetic vision lend each of her films a singular authenticity. Catch her work for yourself this weekend. Water for Elephants plays at the UA Berkeley 7.