The long road to Bohemian Rhapsody was paved with its fair share of hurdles—the biopic was green-lit back in 2010 with Sasha Baron Cohen set to star as Freddie Mercury and Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May’s tentative go-ahead. After Cohen eventually bowed out of the role due to creative differences, the rotating roster of directors and multiple re-written drafts of the script hampered the film’s momentum, before the musical was finally slated for release on November 2nd, exactly two days and 46 years after the film’s titular tour de force “Bohemian Rhapsody” first hit the airwaves. Rami Malek graciously stepped into the role of Mercury, whose tragic passing in 1991 from AIDS-related complications left the music world perceptibly devoid of the singer’s flamboyance, glam rock persona, and impressive four-octave vocal range.
The constantly rotating crew and casting changes ultimately didn’t hinder costume designer Julian Day’s creative process because the film’s chronology, which spanned from Mercury’s childhood during the ’50s in Zanzibar and India up until his death in 1991, always remained constant. Malek, too, was easy to dress because he was “born to play this person,” Day says. “Rami played it with such amazing integrity and honesty, so he was and is Freddie Mercury. I’d already designed the clothes before there was any directorial changes and that always stayed the same.”
Ahead of the film’s release, CR caught up with Day to talk about Brian May lending his clothes for the biopic, recreating Mercury’s stage costumes, and Malek’s impact on the film’s clothing.
How did you get started on researching a band of this caliber and putting together the designs?
“The process of research was fairly easy, because I went to visit Brian May and he has an extensive archive of Queen memorabilia, books, personal photographs, and all of their tours. Obviously there’s lots of reference on the internet as well, but mostly we looked at the original Queen photographs. Everything was vintage, and we either sourced [the clothes] from vintage shops or we made it.”
How did you show the band’s evolution through the clothes?
“I’m used to doing films from that era, but we found a color palette for each decade, and then within those decades, each year had a color palette. We looked at how they developed their clothing style and how much money they earned, this idea that their clothes came from thrift stores to begin with and as they got more successful, they had more money to spend on clothes. The great thing was that Brian May actually lent me some of his original clothes, so we used some of May’s actual clothes for the film.”
Wow, what did May think about the wardrobe?
“He loved it. He thought they were fantastic. I think it’s very difficult if someone did a film about your life, because how you would see the those clothes and how you would feel about some of the things you remember? Some of the things I’m sure he wouldn’t even remember. [Queen’s drummer] Roger Taylor loved the clothes as well, and they were in the film. We dressed them up. It was great fun.”
Which costumes did you re-create?
“For the 1974 Sheer Heart Attack Tour in Japan, Freddie and May wore tops made by Zandra Rhodes and we remade them from the original pattern. The story goes that Freddie went into Rhodes’ boutique and she was making a wedding dress and Freddie went ‘I really love that top,’ She apparently cut the bottom of the dress off and gave him the top. We call that ‘the Angel,” the big, white, winged, pleated outfit. Then we also produced the harlequin outfit that he wore and the leather pants and leather tie. We then approached Adidas and they reproduced the original boxing boots that May and Freddie wore. We had a lot of companies making original things for us: Wrangler, for instance. The jeans that Freddie wore at Live Aid in 1985 were Wrangler jeans and we had those produced. Adidas and Levi also remade clothing for the film.”
Were you able to find anything vintage for the concerts?
“No, we pretty much made all of the stuff for the concerts, because they’re so specific. Freddie actually worked in a vintage shop called Biba in Kensington when he was young and he sold 1930s women’s clothing. That was when he first started wearing women’s shirts. I went to vintage shops and bought original ’30s clothing for [Malek].
You get the feeling that for Mercury, clothing was just as much of his on-stage persona as the music. At the precipice of his fame, Mercury was battling HIV/AIDS. How did you show that transition?
“The thing about HIV and AIDS was that it was only in the last part of the film that he develops it. Obviously, I never met Freddie, but you could see in his performances and in his interviews that he had a love of life and a love of clothing. I think it meant a lot to him, so, therefore, I wanted to represent him the best that I could because he’s an enigmatic person. I wouldn’t want the memory of him lessened by not doing him justice with his clothing.”
Did you find any original clothing that Queen wore?
“One of the interesting things was Freddie wore a particular Fila tracksuit, and I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure I bought the original tracksuit that appears in the film. I found it in Manchester and it was in a vintage store, but it’s a very, very, very rare tracksuit and it was very expensive. I’m hoping that the spirit of Freddie helps us through with that tracksuit. And Rami was pretty incredible as an actor as well. He really encapsulated the whole Freddie essence, and was an amazing person to dress. He’s an incredible actor, but a real clotheshorse as well.”
How was Malek involved in the clothes?
“He was involved from beginning to end and came over very early when we did pre-fittings. We looked at all the fabrics together and went through all of the clothes he was going to wear. He likes clothes himself and is a great person to dress. He watched Live Aid 20 or 30 times and then I’d get a telephone call from him saying, ‘Could you make the vest a little bit lower?'”
The film is obviously focused on menswear, but could you tell me about the clothing for women, like Mary Austin, Mercury’s former girlfriend?
“Austin originally worked at Biba and so she was one of the biggest influences on Freddie and his clothing style. With Mary, I’ve spoken to the owner of Biba and she was often very fashionable and a very cool person, so she was put at the front of the store to welcome people in. I think the other female characters are all strong and I wanted to create strong female roles through their clothing for the film.”
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