For cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the challenge with Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” was about capturing what was going on inside the head of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb — what he’s thinking and what we can read in his eyes. For costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, whether it was a two-piece suit or three-piece suit, it was his silhouette. Part of that was finding his hat, which is a character unto itself.
“The hat and its brim were extremely important, it was a grayish taupe hat, and depending on the light, it would look like it was a different tone,” Mirojnick says.
This film required a different approach for the famed costume designer, whose credits include “Basic Instinct,” “Wall Street” and “Bridgerton.” “In this film and in working with Chris, what became clear to me after our first meeting was that the Oppenheimer silhouette never changed,” she says.
Her search for right headwear took her to New York, Italy and Spain, but she ended up in Los Angeles at Baron Hats, which since 1989 has supplied Hollywood productions such as “Justified” and “There Will Be Blood.”
“It had to have a particular thickness to it and a particular kind of felt. You couldn’t move the brim,” she explains. “None of the hatmakers could get the brim right when we were trying to create it. That was the test, and only Baron got it 100% right.” Mirojnick notes that Oppenheimer only wears one hat throughout the entire film, which she describes as a hybrid of a porkpie crown with a somewhat Western brim.
Once she had the look for Cillian Murphy’s titular character, Nolan didn’t want anyone else in the film wearing a hat. “Only Matt Damon’s character wears a hat because he’s in the army, so it’s a uniform hat,” explains Mirojnick.
Through her research, Mirojnick noticed the silhouette pretty much remained the same “once he became empowered at Berkeley,” and that was a gift to her and Nolan. “It never changed in all of those decades,” she adds.
Mirojnick put Murphy in a blue shirt, which seemed to be Oppenheimer’s preferred color. “In all the photos across those time periods, he’ll always wear a blue shirt, it could be a different color blue, depending on the mood, but the silhouette was the same, and depending on the season, that would determine how heavy or thin the material would be.”
In putting his costumes together, Mirojnick says her concept shifted once the story gets to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project and building of the atom bomb for the Trinity Test begins. “I was married to this idea of him being the sheriff in a cowboy town. He was on his horse looking at his town.” She introduced a different fabrication and color into a palette — a tan whipcord fabric made from hard-twisted yarns. “It added a texture to the land and the blue played beautifully against that,” she explains.
As the story moves forward to the bomb test, Mirojnick notes Oppenheimer wears the same suit and silhouette, but in a sandy color, as opposed to a rich brown. “All of the effort of his life is drained out and into that one focus, the bomb,” she says.
Mirojnick found the immersive intimacy of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” “just staggering.” And the simple but significant silhouette and single hat allowed her to focus on getting it just right. She adds, “Having a collaboration with Chris and Cillian to create it was just magical.”