It’s Cold Outside: The Style of Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, 2013 (CBS Films/StudioCanal)

On the backdrop of a grey winter sky and blackening slush, a stiff and uncomfortable Bob Dylan is trudging down Jones Street of Greenwich Village astride his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo. He is venturing out into the cold squinting against a harsh wind without hat or scarf, shrugging his shoulders and withdrawing his neck into a thin mustard suede jacket, with his hands thrust into the pockets of his blue jeans for warmth, while he and Rotolo are curving towards each other in search of the same much sought after warmth. This image, shot by Don Hunstein, is the cover of the musician’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, released in 1963, one of the most recognizable album covers of all time. Bob Dylan’s singularity of impact throughout the decades has to do not only with his music, but with his image, too. And his look on this album cover is part of that laid-back, unassuming, totally individual, with a thrift store quality image that helped define the visual tone of the music scene in downtown New York during the 1960s, a look that soon spread across America.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, 2013 (CBS Films/StudioCanal)

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is set in the biting winter of 1961. Everything is grey, windswept and bleak. The story, which lasts no more than a few days, takes place in New York, with a brief excursion to Chicago, on the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk music scene. Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, admits that that moody Bob Dylan album cover photo influenced the look and overall palette of the movie about the misadventures of a beatnik in the Greenwich Village of 1961. The film however, although not a biopic, drew on certain aspects of another folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, according to the Coen brothers in an interview with Terry Gross, “probably the biggest person on the scene in 1961 in the folk revival in Greenwich Village, the biggest person on the scene until Bob Dylan showed up”.

Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis paces the frosty city streets in a caramel corduroy jacket, and, for want of a coat, a knitted scarf looped and knotted around his neck, tan chukka boots and grey trousers. He is a struggling folk singer who can not catch a break. He is very good, but not great. And his clothes, which he never changes, manage to convey the desperate nature of his character. It’s winter, but he doesn’t have a coat, his jacket has slouched pockets to make him look worn out – most of the character’s clothes were handmade by Mary Zophres, the costume designer, and her crew – and his weathered shoes were found in a box from an old ad.

Downtown New York of the period, where folk music was sneaking its way through the epicenter of New York’s 1960s counterculture movement, “was more about a certain authenticity, so we wanted a limited palette. Plus, the film takes place in the winter, and artists living downtown didn’t have as much to work with, especially in terms of clothes and money. We wanted to convey that it was a difficult time for Llewyn, a poor folk singer trying to make it,” Zophres said.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, 2013 (CBS Films/StudioCanal)

Just looking at Llewyn’s clothes you feel his vulnerability and despair, and that is the power of costume design, helping the actor get into character, for whomever still doubted it. And maybe you have never been that cold and miserable in the dead of winter, but that feeling of being just barely not good enough, that, I guess, is something we all can relate to or fear at one point or another in our lives. There is something universal about the character of Llewyn Davis and his style and that’s what has stuck with me.

Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, 2013 (CBS Films/StudioCanal)

But there is something else I appreciate about the style in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. That it feels current, decidedly 2010s. It is this exact element that I try to find in the movies of previous decades, fashion-wise: a look that can be easily replicated nowadays, maybe with only few changes. These are the classics.

Left: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album cover photographed by Don Hunstein
Right: “Inside Llewyn Davis” film poster (CBS Films/StudioCanal)

sources: interviews with costume designer Mary Zophres for Boston Globe, The Hollywood Reporter; Terry Gross’ Fresh Air podcast with the Coen Brothers

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