The verve and magic of La La Land echoes and pays tribute to the classical Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was in those Depression years of the 1930s that audiences flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, and look like they were having fun. La La Land’s director Damien Chazelle was inspired by those musicals, as well as the ones that followed. He was especially aware of how uniquely song and dance could transform a moment into a visible expression of pure emotion. And how a wordless dance could do that perfectly. As with every movie, costume helps the actors define their role and sets them appropriately in a scene.  For movie musicals, the costumes usually have dual roles: they need to be worn as street clothes but must also work for dancing.  Chazelle turned to veteran costume designer Mary Zophres for the designing job ( Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Catch Me If You Can, True Grit, Interstellar, Hail Caesar).

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in the Hollywood Hills

As with the Fred and Ginger movies, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are two ordinary people pursuing their lives when they meet by accident, and not on friendly terms. He a struggling jazz musician, she an aspiring actress. After some frustrating meetings and even worse career blocks they fall for each other. Breaking into dance is an exuberant display of their growing attraction. In the long  tradition of Hollywood musicals (versus the Broadway musical), it’s the long-form couple’s dance that is the pure display of love. And also the metaphor for love-making itself. Damien Chazelle knew well the repertoire of Hollywood musicals, as well as such classic French musicals as  Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort that influenced himHe was also thinking about the importance of the setting. “… why hasn’t L.A. been used as a romantic playground since those Old Hollywood musicals about Hollywood like Singin’ in the Rain?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with Vogue magazine. And with that setting in mind and the actors and costume designer chosen, he could see the scenes and costumes from those old musical classics. ” I loved reveling in the Technicolor possibility of Emma like she was Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes,” he stated in that same interview for Vogue. Mary Zophres designed the canary yellow dress above for Emma Stone. its bright color picked after the designer reviewed past gowns the star had worn at red-carpet appearances. The color matched a particularly flattering Atelier-Versace gown she had worn in 2014. The basic style of the dress, perfect for the dance scene, is enhanced by hand-painted floral designs.


Mia is a striving actress working as a barista on the Warner Brothers Studio lot, In the photo above she walks past a mural of old movie stars in Hollywood.  Zophres had particular film looks in mind. She cited Funny Face and Audrey Hepburn’s black dance pants as inspiration for the black pants that Mia wears walking through the lot. Similarly, the color of Mia’s emerald green dress worn at the Griffith Park Observatory is inspired by that of Judy Garland’s in A Star is Born.  Mary Zophres also remarked that Mia’s dresses get fuller as the movie goes on. Ryan’s clothing were all made for him. He was meant to look jazz-inspired, but his pants were a bit shorter to show off his two-tone shoes and his dancing. The shoes were purchased at a dance-shoe store in Los Angeles.

La La Land (2016) Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Photo by Dale Robinette

At the end, her dance dress is white, no doubt inspired by Cyd Charisse’s dress from the “Dancing in the Dark” scene in Band Wagon.


And while the fantasy dancing amidst the stars scene after the walk along the Seine has been compared to a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, the backdrop is reminiscent of The Broadway Melody of 1940 with Fred and Eleanor Powell.

In these times of stress and turbulence, the musicals of the 1930s-1950s with their notes of hope and escape may end up providing a relevant model for some of today’s movies. Certainly our dystopian movies of the last ten years have run their course. And the Golden Globe voters agree, having lavished the movie with a record seven awards.

Below are some of the original costume design sketches from some of those  Golden Age Hollywood Musicals.


Shown above is Mary Ann Nyberg’s original costume design sketch for Cyd Charisse in Band Wagon, 1953.  Charisse plays the younger ballet trained dancer to Astaire’s older (now somewhat tarnished) star. But sparks fly as they walk and then Dance in the Dark in Central Park. The costume sketch design has been somewhat modified for the film as the top has the front décolleté. Remaining is the free-flowing pleated skirt shown below.



The late great Debbie Reynolds had her first starring role in Singing in the Rain, considered by many to be the greatest movie musical.




This  vivaceous outfit above  could only seem normal worn while popping out of a cake – and so it was for Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain. Walter Plunkett designed it for her  and some chorines to do a number after she emerged from a giant cake at the Monumental Pictures party, tossing out candy from her hip pocket.






Another Walter Plunkett costume sketch is shown above, this one for Cyd Charisse in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” number with Gene Kelly.  She has been Kelly’s femme fatale in the previous scene and now she comes out dressed as a bride. As the scene morphs into a fantasy the bridal outfit gets stripped of the skirt and she is bare-legged in their dance.




Helen Rose began her career designing costumes for showgirls . So she knew how to infuse flash and movability in her movie designs. She also specialized in using chiffon and had a great sense of color. Below is her costume design for Marge Chapmpion who danced frquently with her husband Gower Champion in movie musicals at MGM.  The design was for Give a Girl a Break, 1953. It’s a perfect dance gown – an eye-catching red color with decollete top and full swinging chiffon skirt with sequins.




Helen Rose designed the costume below for the dancer Carol Haney in On the Town. The movie was a vehicle for some of MGM’s stars, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera Ellen.



Below is Frank Sinatra’s stand-in dancer and Carol Haney dancing , with Gene Kelly waiting his turn.



One of the more unique musical numbers was that of Maureen O’Hara’s in Dance Girl, Dance, directed by Dorothy Arzner in      Edward Stevenson designed the costumes including the costume sketch below. Maureen O’Hara plays a ballerina forced to work in burlesque, where she gives a feminist lecture to an audience of leering men.




Musicals, like all movies, have been both great and trivial. At their best they combine the power of music, dance, story and the other arts to elevate our emotions to, as Dick Van Dyke sang, “Up to the highest hight!.”



  1. “La La Land” is one vert unique and spectacular film and your review from the perspective of its costume design is wonderful. I loved the film’s color palette, costuming, production design, cast, concept…well, everything.

    I came into the theater during the opening number and, for a second, was reminded of “Grease,” a film don’t like, and was almost put off. That feeling quickly passed and I was swept into Damien Chazelle’s amazing vision. At only 31, it seems he is Hollywood’s new wunderkind.

    Thanks for another informative, insightful piece, Christian.

    1. Well Lady Eve, it is a very likable movie, although it has its detractors. Nonetheless, I think it will have a sweep at the Academy Awards. It is amazing though that this movie could very easily not have been made at all. An original musical was not a popular concept to sell to producers and studios. If Chazelle hadn’t been so successful with Whiplash we not be watching La La Land today. Obviously I liked it a lot too, though regret that acting dancers and singers are not candidates to “sell” movie musicals any longer. Thanks for your compliment.

  2. Both informed and informative–another slam-dunk post. Everything about this film is delightful and deserves more that one viewing. Love the original costume sketches from your collection!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post Inge. How wonderful it was to see such a classy nod to the old Hollywood musicals. I couldn’t resist
      showing off those lovely sketches from that era. It’s great that you enjoyed them and thank you for your compliment.

      1. You are most welcome. It’s a joy to see those original sketches. A bit off-topic but I’ve noticed that Cyd Charisse, no matter what she wore, always looked timeless and contemporary. Is it bone structure? Ballet training? I don’t know. Garbo had it as well. No wonder Cyd was chosen to be a dancing Ninotchka in “Silk Stockings”. Be well and keep them coming!

        1. Helen Rose said Cyd Charisse had the most perfect body of anyone she ever worked with. With many designers and actresses in coming up with a contemporary wardrobe there is often
          a need to work around figure “flaws” or weaknesses through costume design elements. With Cyd Charisse there was simply no need to do this. Wiith her dance costumes it was to enhance her moves or to enchant by revealing her figure. Otherwise she could wear virtually all styles and look good. You are right Inge about Garbo. It’s too bad though that Garbo felt self-conscious about her height and broad shoulders, and she tended to stoop.Thank you for your comment and I’ll try to keep them coming.

  3. Love the article! Thanks!

    Just for accuracy’s sake — that’s not Sinatra in the next-to-last photo. It’s one of the uncredited dancers who appeared in the Day in New York ballet. Sinatra and Munshin weren’t in that sequence, as their dancing skills weren’t up to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *