Interview: Maggie Whitaker Talks Costume Design and ‘Fairyland’ [EXCLUSIVE]

Jules
15 Min Read
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As part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to chat with costume designer Maggie Whitaker about her work on Fairyland! The film, based on the memoir of the same name by Alysia Abbott, follows a young Alysia (Nessa Dougherty and later Emilia Jones of CODA) and her openly gay father Steve (Scoot McNairy) as they move to mid-1970s San Francisco following her mother’s death. As Alysia grows up, her typical teenage need for rebellion clashes with Steve’s bohemian parenting style as the specter of the AIDS crisis looms. Fairyland is both an intimate portrait of their relationship and an important historical document of queer history. Produced by Sofia Coppola, it is also the feature debut of director Andrew Durham.

Whitaker’s role as costume designer involved sourcing vintage looks to fit both the historical moment and the characters’ emotional journeys — with only ten days of prep time! As a self-described “queer mom” herself, Whitaker’s investment in the project was personal. In our interview, Whitaker discussed her extensive research, the best vintage finds, and more.

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Nerds and Beyond: How did you first become involved with Fairyland? Were you familiar with the source material before you signed on?

Maggie Whitaker: I first became involved with the project through my mentor and friend, Aggie Rodgers. Back in 2021, she had me read the memoir, and I had fallen deeply in love with the story long before I even knew there was a possibility of being on the shortlist to design the film. By the time the project was moving forward, she and I were working together on a different feature, and she gave them my name as the designer they should contact. Once I had a chance to talk with Andrew Durham and Megan Carlson and state that yes, the memoir is, in fact, on my nightstand, thumbed through and tear-stained, they decided that I would be a good fit!

Nerds and Beyond: Fairyland is a deeply personal story, yet it is also easy for readers and audiences to connect with the characters. Did you find yourself relating to Alysia and Steve’s story, and if so, how did it impact your work?

Maggie Whitaker: The heart of this story is a dad raising his kid with all the love he has for her under some heartbreaking circumstances. Add to that — it’s the 70s, and this is not a time when dads are trained to be sensitive, empathetic, and can make a decent pigtail. Now, build on that; he is a gay dad in the 70s, living as authentically his truth with his daughter in San Francisco as he can so that his daughter can be able to grow up to live her life as authentically as she can.

I’m a queer mom, and I am a costume designer. My job steals time from my family, and my saving grace is a loving spouse who holds down the fort — something that Steve and Alysia never had growing up. Steve is messy, makes mistakes, and does his best to juggle his truth as a working artist and parent. I see that balancing act in him and love him for not hiding the mess.

Nerds and Beyond: As the costume designer, you not only had to make sure all the pieces you used were period accurate but also accurate to the emotional journeys of the characters. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced, and what were the most rewarding aspects of the job?

Maggie Whitaker: I never want to say any part of this was easy, it wasn’t, but there was a certain release with Steve and Alysia in that they were BROKE! So, in his storyline, there were pieces of clothing that we could track through the entirety of his life and incorporate into Alysia’s wardrobe for the end of the film (look for certain plaid flannels, ringer tees, they may seem familiar!) because while his fashion would take brief explorations into style as he played with trends, he had an intact core self. Their poverty permitted us to create closets and track pieces back and forth within their outfits. This is great storytelling but very stressful, as we were working with vintage pieces and, for most things, had no backup piece in case something happened to the original!

The collaboration with our leads was extensive. For Scoot McNairy, we spent a couple of hours before shooting, fitting, and sketching out the overall look of Steve. Each week, we would look at the shooting schedule and figure out what was coming up that we needed to tweak — the looks that we had not established yet that we might want to make some different choices with, and we would fit more looks. That way, we kept a collaborative dialogue going on all throughout the film. It was a similar process with Alysia, played by Nessa Dougherty (little Alysia) and Emilia Jones (teen Alysia). Like Scoot’s process, we did these big pre-shooting fittings where we would spend a couple of hours trying on look after look, talking through the options, and working out how we would tell the story of their growth from beginning to end.

Nerds and Beyond: Were there any 70s or 80s pop culture reference points you used to base the characters’ looks on?

Maggie Whitaker: In terms of period silhouettes and pop culture references for the 70s: The Cockettes, Divine. Some of the most dramatic aesthetic moments were seen in the early party scenes in Paulette’s house when we were in those early 70s (roughly 1974-76 ish). No longer the summer of love but something else entirely. This is where Andrew and I built our most extravagant fashion world. You will notice that there is a mix of 70s pieces and very old vintage dresses mixed with other eras on our characters. If you look at Paulette (Maria Bakalova) and Johnny (Ryan Thurston), you can see 30s dresses with old waspies and even a hernia truss mixed with dirty furs and other miscellaneous pieces of junk jewelry thrown together, which were inspired deeply by the Cockettes, a commune and performance group that came out of San Francisco in the early 1970s.

Once we were in the 1980s, with Alysia and her friends, I wanted to pull some key fashion icons that would connect our actors to their characters and give them room to grow. We knew we were working in this punk/new wave world, so the research images flowed hard between Andrew and myself — no surprise there! For Yayne especially, I wanted to bring some visual icons for Bella Murphy to connect with and see where we could build her character story. We started by looking at images of Pauline Black of The Selecter and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Since we see her grow from a teenager to an older version of herself, it gives us room to show a brighter, more two-tone/ska influence in the first club scene and a more mature version when she meets up with Alysia near the end of the film.

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Nerds and Beyond: With so many vintage looks, research into both clothing of the time and the overall historical moment must have become an integral part of your job. Were there particular books or other media that you utilized in creating your vision for the costumes?

Maggie Whitaker: I’m sitting next to my stack of books that made up the bulk of our library on set. Between Andrew and I, we shared a huge stash of literature that we found mutually inspiring, and I ended up ordering a bunch of his favorites! There are more, but these five were the key books in our reference collection: The Cockettes, Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy by Fayette Hauser, The Gay Essay by Anthony Friedkin, Idols by Gilles Larrain, The Gay Seventies by Hal Fischer, and LGBT San Francisco: The Daniel Nicoletta Photographs.

In addition, Alysia Abbott was a generous supporter of the film and shared archival images of her family and personal stories. I was able to check in with her on character, fashion, and authenticity questions. I had two amazing colleagues in Anna Prisekin — my assistant costume designer, who dug into her punk rock college archives and brought extant research for the 80s to bear, as well as our set tailor, Jean Frederickson, who was a local girl and scene icon in the early 80s in San Francisco so she could again, be a direct visual dramaturge.

Nerds and Beyond: In searching for vintage pieces, were there any rare finds that you were especially thrilled to come across? What is your favorite look from the film?

Maggie Whitaker: Considering that practically everything is vintage and a LOT of my favorite pieces on the leads came from my archive, this is like asking me to say which kid is my favorite. But clothes aren’t children, so here goes nothing!

When you are looking at the portals of the past photograph that we recreate, this is the photo that is the cover of the memoir. The looks are not built to match but instead are done in the spirit of Steve and Alysia at that moment. They are collaged out of different things, designed to be spiritually aligned but not identical; it’s a choice to capture the character of this moment and not to freeze history. Now, the suit that Steve is wearing is a mish-mash of pieces from my personal collection that we basically recut to fit him and create that look. For young Alysia — I ordered a box of vintage children’s clothing from the turn of the century, deadstock, like 1910s ish. No sizing, no backsies — you know what I mean? Just a big box off of eBay with some pictures that gave me a glimmer of hope that some of it might work. And we struck some gold. Between one gown, a slip from TheatreWorks that we hemmed, and a lot of very clever alterations thanks to Jean Frederickson, we were able to create a dress that belonged to that world for Nessa to wear as Alysia in that photo.

Nerds and Beyond: What was it like collaborating with director Andrew Durham, especially given his background in photography and fashion?

Maggie Whitaker: Andrew is brilliant, kind, visual, and trusting. He trusted me to be the person he needed to sculpt these characters into life. We communicated using the same shorthand of visual language, pop, and subculture references and just understood each other. He would show up with a ton of clear material, he knew who every person in the script was, and he had lived in this story his whole life. It was so important to tell, not only on a professional level but on a personal level. So to have his respect and collaboration means the world to me.

Nerds and Beyond: What do you hope audiences ultimately take away from Fairyland?

Maggie Whitaker: I have been thinking a lot about this article I read in the New York Times last month and how when we stopped chanting “Silence equals Death” for “Love is Love,” the movement lost power. I want to challenge that philosophy as a binary. Steve raised Alysia as a single gay dad at a time when dads didn’t typically raise their kids alone, much less as out gay men. His completely normal and mundane acts of love for his child are also radical acts of love when taken in the context of time, place, and politics. Across this country, we see the pushback against our LGBTQIA+ kin, and to make a film that normalizes the act of parenting so empathetically, one lousy pigtail at a time? How powerful, how loving is that? Silence does equal death, and nothing can silence love lived loudly.

Our thanks to Maggie Whitaker for speaking with us! You can find more of her work on her official website.

Nerds and Beyond is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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