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How I, Tonya's Costume Designer Transformed Margot Robbie Into Skating's Anti-Heroine

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‘I knew within myself that as a designer, I would have failed if these clothes were funny. This is a person who has been made fun of for so many decades: we don’t need that movie. That for me is the most important aspect of costume design: to be really sincere, never funny or artificial unless it’s called for.’ When dressing Margot Robbie as the disgraced ‘90s figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, this was Jennifer Johnson’s self-imposed brief: to bring a sincerity, even dignity, to the film’s cast of imperfect misfits in 'a love letter to Tonya's skating costumes.'

For years, the name Tonya Harding has been synonymous with an episode that’s almost definitely the most scandalous in figure skating history, and one of the biggest sporting controversies of the ‘90s. In 1994, Harding’s Olympic teammate and arch rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a practice session, jeopardizing her chances at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics that year; later, an FBI investigation revealed that the thug had been hired by Harding’s abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Harding’s reputation was tarnished by association, the former champion banned for life from the sport she’d practiced since the age of three. ‘As a nation, we were really riveted. This was before the Internet, before Instagram and Twitter: the fever it incited was fascinating, this slow simmering that finally blew up,’ recalls Johnson. ‘I went in having this idea of Tonya that was not at all positive, but then I read the script, I watched ESPN’s documentary 30 for 30, and that really opened my mind to who she was. Everything I thought of her was not true at all.’

Following Tonya from childhood to ‘the incident’ and its aftermath, I, Tonya has a manic energy, a pitch-black sense of humour, and a plot that’s stranger than fiction – all fertile territory for kitsch, larger-than-life fashion. It’s much to Johnson’s credit that her costumes don’t stray into caricature. ‘There’s so much absurdity in the actions and the dialogue,’ the designer explains. ‘You have these moustaches, perms, scrunchies, then the skate costumes are so garish in colour and feel: I felt like we could have fun on the ice, because those outfits are accurate replicas of Tonya’s actual costumes, and then in person, it felt like it was really important to give all the characters dignity.’

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Away from the ice rink, this was a case of ‘taking colour away, softening the shoulders a bit and removing pattern’ from ‘90s staples to ensure that Tonya’s off-duty wardrobe didn’t appear fresh from today’s high street. ‘The fashion of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s – it’s so of the moment, you can walk into any Topshop, Urban Outfitters, all the way up to Balenciaga and see it. I could’ve made an ironic comment about millennial fashion but I didn’t want to go near that,’ Johnson reveals. Instead, she created distinct ‘chapters’ of Tonya’s wardrobe: ‘First she’s a kid, her mom’s dressing her and making her costumes. Then she’s a teenager, [her coach] Diane is dressing her, she’s kind of preppy. Then she leaves Diane and she has this very dignified, simple way of dressing: a set of turtle necks, high waisted jeans, her bomber, her Louis Vuitton handbag and her Chanel earrings.’

For those earlier chapters, Johnson’s research took her down some unexpectedly lo-fi avenues: a home movie-turned-documentary by one of Tonya’s childhood friends, and ‘a treasure trove of tabloid clippings from a super fan,’ bought on Ebay. ‘Her friend in high school was a budding film maker. She followed Tonya round with a VHS and later this became her film thesis at Yale. You really get a sense of her psychology during her teenage years, and how much pressure and abuse she was under with her mom. You also see shopping trips with her coach trying to dress her in Laura Ashley, and Tonya rolling her eyes at being groomed into this ice princess she never wanted to be,’ Johnson says. ‘Another really fascinating research surprise was the clippings – we had a great stack of international tabloid publications that had all kinds of interesting family photos.’

It’s Tonya’s skating costumes, in all their shimmering, spandex-ed glory, which are the film’s real standouts, of course. From the handmade creations worn at the start of her career to the professionally designed outfits at Lillehammer, each was painstakingly researched and recreated by Johnson and her team. Matching the outfit to the skating fixture was no mean feat, requiring hours spent combing through grainy home videos on YouTube. ‘Skate competitions are often labelled incorrectly, especially on YouTube, plus skaters would often have a set of costumes that they’d wear for a year or two, so the costumes didn’t necessarily signify the event,’ the designer explains. Once she had checked and double checked that the outfit lined up with the script, the footage would be ‘really bad, almost like old VHS quality, especially when she moved. She’d be flying through the air and we’d freeze frame it: the seamstresses and I became obsessed with getting it right.’

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‘Getting it right’ often meant deliberately recreating a poor fit or uncomfortable choice of fabric, reflecting Tonya’s outlier status, branded ‘white trash’ in a sport populated by nice middle class girls. In one memorable moment, we see Margot Robbie hunched over a sewing machine as Tonya aggressively stitches a sugar-pink frou-frou concoction (as Johnson reminds me, her rival Nancy Kerrigan could call on Vera Wang to design new costumes each season). In another, Tonya becomes the first woman to pull off the elusive triple axel spin in competition. Her bejeweled turquoise costume is the sleekest, most ‘establishment’ style we’ve seen her in so far – in fact, it’s one of the few styles with which Johnson used a little creative license, adding a silver underlay to the leaves of her skirt – but the arms are still bunched up, the material still thick and unwieldy. ‘That was intentionally made with single stretch jumbo spandex which is really thick and kind of awkward,’ says Johnson. ‘That would’ve been what she had access to in Portland at the time. The arms would be a little baggy, thy wouldn’t stretch in the right places: we could’ve easily found a great stretch material now, but it just felt wrong.’

It’s this level of authenticity that earned Johnson’s costumes a stellar review from the person who mattered most: Tonya herself. ‘I came up to her at the bar where our after-party was, and she told me, “I was so sure that you had got hold of all my costumes, and I didn’t understand how you’d done that,”’ the designer recalls. ‘Then without me saying anything, she said “You nailed that ’91 costume, that thick uncomfy spandex – I love that you thought of that, it’s so important to show I made it myself.” She’s still so proud of that even now, and that was the best review I could have. Tonya deserves a lot of credit for designing those costumes – they deserved to be recreated and showcased.'

I, Tonya is out now

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