Costume designer and production designer Catherine Martin talks about upping the ante for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

You could forgive Catherine Martin for wishing Jay Gatsby was a less popular guy. As costume designer on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, she worked on as many as 600 individual costumes in some of the party scenes.

“Every time we do a movie, Baz is always upping the ante and getting bigger. It’s not an aim to make it bigger for its own sake, part of the process of just trying to do your work better,” she says.

And in making a film about the extravagance of the era, she had an especially daunting job serving as both production designer and costume designer (she is Oscar-nominated for both roles). “I did it before on Australia so I’d had some experience of that prior to embarking on this,” she recalls. “I do tend to bite off a great deal; that’s a character trait. There were moments where I was hiding in the corner having a quick cry. But you get over it and you pick yourself up and carry it on.”

Martin has worked with Luhrmann (her husband since 1997) for more than 20 years, so they have a strong collaborative history. Her first feature film was Luhrmann’s 1992 release Strictly Ballroom and she won two Oscars for Moulin Rouge!.

She did not immediately respond to his suggestion to tackle The Great Gatsby, however. She did not love the book as a teenager, but when she revisited it at Luhrmann’s suggestion, “I re-read it and became its greatest fan. I felt incredibly impassioned about being part of telling the story.”

The Jazz Age period - the book is set in 1922 - also appealed to her. “I love the art-deco period,” she says. “It’s great to be able to explore our experience of the modern age through a period that’s just a little bit removed. It comes after the Great War when everything for so many people changed in an absolutely unstoppable way. It’s a particularly fascinating period; you’re travelling from the 19th century to the 20th century. You’re seeing a total evolution of the mores of the day.”

Luhrmann did update the story with some modern touches such as a hip-hop-inflected soundtrack executive produced by Jay Z. But the aim was never to reinvent The Great Gatsby for a contemporary world. Martin says: “We never approach things trying to make them feel modern. [Baz is] about source material. The first step is to go back to the source, to decode what one finds in terms of descriptions in the book - we very much started there.”

Elements of surprise

Of the costumes she notes: “We needed to make the costumes feel familiar but also surprising. He said, ‘I don’t want it to look like a gangster and olls costume party.’ We needed to go look at the things we forget about the 1920s… Not everything was a flapper dress with fringe beading on it. That wasn’t to everyone’s taste.”

The most reinvention was done with the shoes. She explains: “Shoes from the 1920s tend to have quite a heavy heel and were stumpy and that to a modern eye looks matronly and we wanted to give the audience a sense of excitement about the period and a sense of sexiness. That’s one area where we strayed from what is expected.”

Partners for some of the looks in the film include the French lace house Solstiss, Brooks Brothers, Prada (Miuccia Prada is a friend of Luhrmann’s) and jeweller Tiffany & Co.

In addition to the lavender dress of Carey Mulligan’s character Daisy Buchanan, which shows off a certain fragility, Martin says another key look was the pink suit worn by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby. “For me, it represents Gatsby’s innate romanticism… We needed desperately to find a period reference that justified to us how this pink suit could be. We went to Brooks Brothers and looked through all their catalogues. You couldn’t have him looking ridiculous, it had to be plausible but on the edge.”

All Gatsby’s suits had to be just so. “Evening clothes were so important for Gatsby, the parties define the world he inhabits. We had perfectly tailored suits,” she says with pride.

With the production design, it was important that the film felt vibrant, not a sepia-toned history lesson. There were 42 sets constructed for the film.

“I don’t want New York to end up being this sort of nostalgic city that is all about the good ol’ days. I want it to feel as visceral and exciting as it did back in the day of Fitzgerald,” she says.

As for designing those extravagant parties, she says, “You needed to give it that kind of feeling so everyone understood how lavish and inconceivable his wealth is and how quickly he gets it. He basically becomes that rich in four years.”