From the time she was a little girl, Amy Roth felt a magnetic pull towards her Aunt Ann. “I just remember her with her Chanel slingbacks and her skirt and cashmere sweater and a scarf around and she would smell like Rive Gauche—the perfume,” Amy says. “I can smell it like it was yesterday.” Even back then, Amy recognized the story in clothing, and Ann’s story was that of a “free and independent woman” (at least if you consult the fragrance department of Yves Saint Laurent), a woman concerned with detail. In fact, Ann Roth was—and still is—one of the leading costume designers in the business.
At the time, Ann also had her eye on Amy. She’d drive out to her brother’s house to visit, to check on her niece. “Nobody ever asked me questions like Ann asked me, nobody thought about things the way she did,” Amy remembers. Ann recruited her (along with her own daughter, Hannah) to help her on location as soon as the girls got to an “age where they could get into trouble,” putting them to work parking for extras, sorting racks, and doing laundry.
Amy remembers early morning wake-ups to drive into the city to her aunt’s studio, classical music blaring from the speakers and Ann cursing telephone poles as they interfered with her signal. They’d get out at 23rd Street, Amy recalls, and “she would walk into her studio, where it was like Disney World to me.”
Though Hannah showed little interest, Amy had the passion (“I would do anything to be included,” says Amy) and the skill. “All of the costume people loved Amy, without question,” says Ann. “She understood that it was a job and that there were specific rules. Amy started out needing to do it the right way.”
Of course, she was learning from the master. To date, Ann has designed costumes for 103 Broadway productions and 128 projects across film and television. She has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning for The Nance, three Emmy Awards, and four Oscars, winning for The English Patient.
That “right way” is an approach rooted in research and the cultivation of an historical knowledge base about clothing and fashion and fabric and functionality. “There’s a huge amount of knowledge—the way you do a movie, whether it’s 1930 or 1830 or 1730—you have to know how to approach it with the literature,” says Ann. And Amy’s been an A student: “Amy’s research is savvy.”
“I’m rooted in old traditions,” Amy says. “I feel like I’ve got one foot in how it was done—and how it was done the right way and the process—and there’s a new way that you need to stay relevant and keep moving.”
Amy’s been carving a name for herself in costume design for the film and television industries. She’s designed worlds ranging from the modern professional society of Lipstick Jungle to the Civil War–set Mercy, to the 1950s-era Indignation and The Looming Tower. The latter two culled her expertise in the ’50s and laid the groundwork for her latest design: Ed Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn (now in theatres). The film is an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, which follows a private investigator with Tourette syndrome as he works to solve the murder of his mentor. Though the book takes place in the 1990s, Norton wanted to add nuance to the story by setting it earlier and applying a noir lens—though not literally. The film noir comes through in the text and storytelling style of old detective films sans the overly glamorized and hazy look often associated with the genre—as Roth called it: “an unflinching look” at the New York of the time.
With this in mind, Amy dove into the portfolios of photographers like Saul Leiter, Gordon Parks, and Vivian Maier to root her design in realism. “A lot of that photojournalism of that time was taking photos of the unseen,” says Amy, which is exactly the kind of thing Ann taught her to uncover.
Labor of Love
Both Roths bury themselves in research before drawing a single sketch or sourcing a single item. The idea is that you immerse yourself so fully in the vocabulary of the era that when you go to a vintage rental house, the right pieces jump out. “One of the keys to success is to try to find stuff that nobody else has seen—and that’s the hardest thing now, but that’s what you want to do,” says Ann. “When I started there weren’t such things as vintage stores; there was a guy underneath the Manhattan Bridge called Mr. Diller and I would never tell anybody where I was going for anything. Never.” The process of research and discovery is a definitive labor.
“It’s not yucks,” says Ann. “It isn’t fun. When people say, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I say, ‘I’m a costume designer,’ and they say … ‘Oh, what fun.’ I actually have only ever had fun once and it was on Mamma Mia! and I don’t remember any of it.”
“You bear a responsibility that can unbearable,” Amy says. Because what these designers are trying to do—what puts them at the top of their field—is merge authenticity with directorial vision (Ann names Mike Nichols as her ultimate collaborator) and their own perspective.
Each designer has an aesthetic as singular as a fingerprint. And while both Roths have practically bathed in the pysche of the 1950s over their careers, Amy’s Motherless Brooklyn is not the same as what Ann’s would have been.
“It has to do with a sense of humor,” says Ann of the distinguisher between designers.
Her recent design for Broadway’s The Waverly Gallery exemplifies what she means. “[For] Elaine May, I did not do [playwright] Kenny Lonergan’s grandmother,” she says. “I did a woman who wore blue nylon stockings because I saw Doris Duke wear them once. In fact, Doris Duke and I were in the same Pilates class and she wouldn’t take off her blue nylon pantyhose and it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. And I put them on Elaine because it amused me.”
“That’s what I envy about Ann,” Amy says. “It’s always my goal to bring a little wit to the thing, and I’m still working on it.”
A Roth Child
But Amy is dedicated to learning—well, according to Ann, perfecting. “She became very real very soon,” says Ann of her niece’s reputation.
It’s not lost on the younger of the Roths that her mere presence in the same field as her aunt, let alone her prolificness, creates the idea of a legacy, but aside from a hope to do theatre, for now Amy just relishes sharing space and ideas with her aunt. “When I get ready to do something, I show my research to Ann. When I’m stuck I’ll call her. She’ll give me solutions to things that you don’t get advice for,” she says. “All crew members ask for Ann’s thoughts and opinions on all matters.”
And she has always been adamant in her opinions. “She’d wear high heels with bobby socks and quilted silk pajamas and my father … would say, ‘Ann you’re not wearing that,’ and she’d say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ And that was it.
“She’s so amazing,” Amy marvels. “Now you realize it, but when you were a kid it was just part of your universe. Now it’s like, ‘Wow, they don’t make people like this anymore.’”
“I hope some way I’ll move into the future with bringing and maintaining these old ways of doing them,” she continues, “because they work.”