In many ways, Moulin Rouge!, which came out 20 years ago today, was ahead of its time. In 2001, Hollywood was no stranger to big blockbuster films, but a splashy approach to making movie-musicals was still relatively new. Director Baz Luhrmann’s approach saw the genre go bigger, louder, and glitzier than ever before—much thanks to Moulin Rouge’s elaborate set designs and over-the-top costumes, of course. “We were sailing in uncharted waters,” says Catherine Martin, who served as the co-costume designer alongside Angus Strathie. “Baz was trying to reinvent the modern movie musical, and flying in the face of all studio conventions. He is an extraordinary visionary, and pushes you as an artist to examine stories and historical periods in new and totally unexpected ways.”
If you’ve never seen the film, the plot follows a young Englishman (Ewan McGregor) who becomes infatuated with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a singer at the local Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris. Set in 1900, the historical time period is juxtaposed by raucous renditions of modern songs like “Lady Marmalade.” The costumes Satine wears on-stage at the club play an equally-important role in the flick (so much so that both Martin and Strathie earned an Oscar for their work). Each scene brings a more enchanting look than the last: She’ll sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a crystal-embellished, fringed mini dress with a tophat to match, then dance to a number like “Rhythm of the Night” wearing a fitted bustier with a dramatic feathered train.
Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection
To develop the costumes, Martin first looked back to 1889, when the Moulin Rouge originally opened (yes, it’s a real place). They based many of the looks that Satine and her dancers wear by examining what people really wore during the era. “It was very exciting because I got to go to the Costume Institute at the Met, and explore their collections from this period,” Martin says. “I remember being particularly excited by late 19th century feather boa. I just couldn’t believe its colors: It was the most brilliant orange and purple striped object, with fabulous silken tassels at the end. It was positively modern!” Martin liked it so much, she ended up designing a similar boa that’s worn by a dancer named Nini-Legs-in-the-Air during a party scene.