Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, Tate Taylor’s The Help is a airbrushed tale about the African-American maids who worked in white households in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone) writes a book about the maids and, in the process, transforms her, and her mother’s, life. To borrow from Roger Ebert, The Help is ‘a safe film about a volatile subject.’ As a viewer, you might feel shortchanged by the directors decision to focus solely on optimistic sentimentality, to neatly sidestep politics and to colour a segregated world with an unrealistic Disney-inspired palette, but it is, nevertheless, an enjoyable tale.
The film is a visual celebration of the era, and much like TV series Mad Men (at the height of its popularity when the film was released in 2011), offers and replicates the 1960s up without judgement. Most of the white characters smoke incessantly and ‘polite’ society still rejects those that fall outside of its accepted realms. Serial social climber Hilly Hollybrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is openly dismissive of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain); so-called ‘white trash’ and a helpless housewife who is a disaster in the kitchen. It’s fitting that, after Hilly fires her maid Minny, it’s Celia that offers her a job. Celia and Minny’s relationship almost threatens to steal the show – the maid becomes Celia’s confidant and protector and helps her to understand her own place in Jackson. Both draw on the positive elements of the other’s character and become friends. Celia’s down-to-earth treatment of Minny (openly hugging her, inviting her to eat lunch at the kitchen table) highlights how poorly Hilly, and the other ‘society’ ladies’, treat their maids.
Of course, a film about the early 1960s wouldn’t be complete without the costumes. Twice-Oscar nominated Sharen Davis built around 50 costumes from scratch, using vintage fabrics, the rest of the costumes (and there were more than 400) were sourced from costume rental shops and vintage stores. This attention to detail certainly paid off, as both the garments and the accessories lend an authenticity to the look of The Help. According to the Los Angeles Times, Davis spent time (and money, at least $15,000) locating period accessories, including patent leather structured handbags with matching shoes, pearl choker necklaces and cluster earrings, cat’s eye sunglasses and garden party-festive hats.
Although the film is set in the early 1960s many of the costumes have a strong 50s influence. According to Davis: “Jackson is a very small town, and women there may have been watching the style of Jackie O, but they were two years behind her in fashion.” That explains the bold floral print fit-and-flare dresses favoured by Hilly, and the broderie anglaise and matchy-matchy two-string pearls and bracelets worn by Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly).
Of course, it’s not only Skeeter’s feminist stance that sets her apart from her peers; her costume does too. Recently-returned from university, her wardrobe is more simple, more streamlined and is dominated by earthy tones. When she interviews for a job at the Jackson Journal, she wears a cropped double-breasted jacket with a wide collar, paired with a fitted skirt and a practical tan satchel. This colour is echoed in other scenes; at Hilly’s bridge club she wears a pale ochre dress with a brown neckline and a button detail, on a date she wears a burnt orange dress with a cut-out neck (and, in a nod to tradition, some pearls). It’s a feminine look, but not an overt celebration of her gender. In fact, the overriding impression is that Skeeter’s a grown-up tomboy who wants to be judged on her intellect and not her appearance. Even her curly hair fails to conform to Southern standards, and is a world away from the bridge brigade’s beehives and immaculately groomed chignons.
Celia too, fails to conform to sartorial expectation; that’s just another reason for Hilly et al. to ostricise her, even going as far as hiding under the tables when she attempts to drop into bridge club. In Kathryn Stockett’s novel, Celia is a fan of Marilyn Monroe, and Davis based the flesh-baring character’s outfits around the movie star. Davis even strapped on extra padding to complete the ‘Hollywood’ look, because for Celia, it’s all about an hourglass silhouette, tight clothes, waist cinchers and perfectly coiffed peroxide blonde waves. At the Benefit Ball, Celia arrives in a floor-length, hot pink cocktail dress that has delicate bead embellishment and is designed to more-than-maximise her assets. Of course, it adds more fuel to the Bridge Brigade’s fire – and host Hilly’s temper is tested when a drunken Celia rips her demure green and gold dress. In many ways, Coke-bottle clutching Celia represents the future of Southern women: her warmth and unchecked emotion show the audience and, one hopes, the town, that there is an alternative to the ‘perfect housewife’, and that social ranking isn’t just about propriety.
However, it’s the maids costumes that are Davis’ biggest triumph. Although all wear a traditional uniform, each maid retains a distinct personality that is subtly conveyed through her attire; Aibileen’s uniform is always pressed and if not actually starched, has the appearance of being, whilst Minny’s is more likely to be crumpled and disheveled. The maid’s outfits cement their social position because they are so well harmonised with the home and interior, echoing tablecloths, doilies and the domestic environment.
In the original novel, the maid outfits were white but the colour tested poorly on screen (in fact, the maids looked more like nurses), so Davis opted for a light grey. The plain cotton garments are austere, functional and keep each working maid in her place, stripping her of personality. Minny somehow manages to express her unconventionality through a pinstripe dress (according to Davis, it was cut-off sourced from a LA-based designer, “The rest of the fabric was probably used to make expensive shirts!”)
Outside of work, the maids are able to express their ‘true’ personalities. Day-to-day clothes remain casual and faded but for church, bright and optimistic jewel colours, richer textures, ruffled collars and sleeves…and an obligatory hat and veil were the order of the day. This Sunday Best style isn’t glamorous in the Southern Belle way, but it’s perfectly suited to the maids’ province and lifestyles. And that’s where The Help excels. Perhaps it could have benefitted from a more adventurous screenplay and a little less sentimentality, but through costume and set (and with some excellent performances thrown in for good measure) it successfully captures the mood of 1960s Mississippi, white prejudice and a society where divisions run much deeper than fashion and style.