The Costumes in ‘Fancy Dance’ Do Sophisticated Storytelling — Without Needing to Be Fancy

Three weeks of prep is not long for a feature film, but that is the amount of time Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance” had before shooting. The film follows a Native woman named Jax (Lily Gladstone) who must balance caring for her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) with trying to find her missing sister/Roki’s mother Tawi (Hauli Sioux Gray) and surviving the meddling influences that might tear the family apart. It takes place on the fragile edges of Late Stage Capitalism, gas stations and creek beds, Walmart parking lots and staged houses for lease. No one in the film, frankly, has the time to shop for clothes.

Nonetheless, costume designer Amy Higdon needed to craft looks that tell us what’s important to these characters and who they’re trying to be to each other. And she needed to do it fast. The costume team had only two chances to fit Lily Gladstone and iron out the nuances in Jax’s character, from the shirts and chains that make her feel most herself as a queer Indigenous woman to the more buttoned-up, white-people-friendly mask she puts on to the clothes that make her look more open and vulnerable.

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“That shirt Jax wears to Frank [Shea Whigham] and Nancy’s [Audrey Wasilewski] dinner was one of the first things we put on her, and we were like, OK, we know this feels right. [Then] we had one more chance to fit her the next day, less than 24 hours later,” Higdon told IndieWire. “So that was me reshopping a few things and just having to go by instinct. I was running around the mall like a crazy person [looking for] what looks like Jax, what feels like Jax, and not having the time to question it or intellectualize too much. It was like, ‘This feels right. Let’s go. Let’s do it.’”

Some of what helped propel that instinct was a clear sense of how the characters look comfortable or uncomfortable in the environment of a scene, which was worked out in collaboration with the other department heads and Tremblay. Higdon told IndieWire that the “Fancy Dance” filmmaking team quickly developed a mind-meld. “It was a small team and a lot of women department heads — Charlotte Royer was our production designer, Tafv Sampson our set decorator. Our offices were right across the hall from each other, so I could always pop over and look at their stuff,” Hidgon said. “Then Carolina Costa, our director of photography, I feel like a lot of times I could go to her and be like, ‘Is this going to work? Is this going to meld really well?’”

FANCY DANCE, Lily Gladstone, 2023. © AppleTV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Fancy Dance’©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Collection

The team worked out a clear sense of how color can bring out the characters’ psychology: Bolder colors, particularly purple, would be more expressive of togetherness and home, drawing the audience’s eye inside rich, colorful frames; whereas more washed-out whites and yellows would amp up discomfort and disconnect.

The costume piece that had to work across most of the film’s run, though, is the purple fringe jacket that Roki takes from her mom’s closet and wears to the powwow where she still hopes her mom might meet them. The problem, besides the quick turnaround, was that COVID killed a lot of independent fabric stores in Oklahoma, where “Fancy Dance” shot, and there was no time to order things or get swatches from outside the state.

“It’s really just JOANN Fabrics,” Higdon said. “So I was like, ‘Well, what does JOANN’s have?’ And they had this little performance spandex in, luckily, a shade of purple [that reads] a little bit youthful so it would make sense on such a young girl and over her clothes and would chaotically work with things, even when it didn’t totally match.”

FANCY DANCE, Isabel Deroy-Olson, 2023. © AppleTV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Fancy Dance’©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Collection

If an almost defiant confidence was the core to Jax’s clothing choices, that youthful chaos was what mattered for Roki. “It was important to keep Roki at this moment in girlhood before you’re hyper-aware of how watched you are as a girl,” Higdon said. “That jacket had to serve a lot of function throughout the story and sort of transform with Rokey a little bit, even though it doesn’t actually change in form at all.”

How chaotic the jacket is in relation to Roki’s other clothes subtly mirrors her growing self-awareness over the course of the film, and then Higdon and Tremblay get to gloriously deploy the fringe in the film’s final, titular fancy dance.

“It comes from a costume that Roki’s mom wore as a stripper and then it has to become a dancing shawl by the end. Getting that design brief and all the things that happen in between was a little daunting,” Higdon said. “But I think we struck the right chord, and I’m really proud of that one. It’s a way for Tawi to be present for the whole story.”

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