J.R. Hawbaker (THE ’05) can pinpoint the exact moment her life changed. Heading into her second year at DePaul, Hawbaker intended to study English literature, history and photography, but she wasn’t passionate about her academic path. Then, as she browsed classes, the course book fell open to the costume design program in The Theatre School. “I saw classes in playwriting, design, the history of costume and Shakespeare,” Hawbaker says. Suddenly, she realized the connective thread among her areas of interest. “I liked those subjects because they were expressions of character, and that’s what costume design is all about.”
Now, as an assistant costume designer based in Los Angeles, Hawbaker’s credits include “Mad Men,” “True Blood,” “Argo” and the upcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” She also worked on “American Hustle” with costume designer Michael Wilkinson, spending three months conceptualizing the sumptuous fur coats, slinky dresses and plunging necklines that earned the film an Academy Award nomination in costume design. “It was truly a dream script. Nothing about those characters was clichéd,” Hawbaker says. Consequently, she avoided stereotypical ’70s references in favor of aspirational and fresh pieces perfectly suited to the film’s themes of projection, reinvention and the long con.
According to Hawbaker, the process of bringing characters to life through costume occurs in phases. “Typically, you start with a script and a conversation with the director, their take on the characters, what they’re trying to evoke, their vision,” she says. “Next up is the research period where you gather images and items that will help you refine those ideas with the director.” Illustrations, full-size renderings and on-set adjustments follow.
That said, the process differs by director; when Hawbaker collaborates with Terrence Malick, as she did on “The Tree of Life” and “Knight of Cups,” standard operating procedure goes out the window. “There’s no research, there’s no script,” Hawbaker explains, noting that she has learned to trust her instincts in developing designs that assist the actors in creating their characters. “Costume design comes from a much deeper place than most people realize. At some level, it’s a gut understanding of how people project themselves.”