When costume designer Lahly Poore signed on nearly two years ago to create Hank Williams’ look for the music legend’s bio-pic, I Saw the Light, she had to capture not just an era, but an icon.
With a fast, low-budget shoot in Shreveport, La., Poore and a small crew recreated the remarkable 10-year span when Williams made music magic that endures long after his 1953 death at age 29.
The film stars Tom Hiddleston as Williams, Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife, Audrey, and Bradley Whitford as father-figure Fred Rose, a music publisher. Written and directed by Marc Abraham, the film is based on the book, Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott.
“It was a project of love for Marc and pretty much for everybody,” said Poore. “With everybody on board, it was like, ‘Let’s put everything into this that we can!’”
Hiddleston amplified his physical resemblance to the gaunt and sickly Williams with a strict exercise and diet regimen, part of what he’s called “a personal duty and responsibility to play him honestly.”
Feeling the same, Poore embarked on a mission of authenticity, heading straight to the oracles of country music style: Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in Los Angeles and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
“My first fitting with Tom happened to be in Nashville because he was working on music there. And in the process I got to do a lot of research in the Hall of Fame,” Poore said. “There are so many costumes from so many country legends like Hank Williams there.”
At the museum, she found the inspiration for one of the film’s most important costumes – the famous white suit adorned with large musical notes. It was custom made by Nudie Cohn at his Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, whose glamorous glitz adorned hundreds of celebrities, including Williams.
Though Poore had collaborated with Jamie Nudie, Cohn’s granddaughter and keeper of his archives and patterns, some of the details about the suit remained elusive until Poore visited the Nashville museum.
“There’s kind of a funny story about that suit. Nobody knew what was on the back of it. It wasn’t in pictures. So I came upon the suit in the museum, and ‘Lo and behold!’ you could walk around the case. I ended up peeking behind it to see that on the back was a guitar. It was a leather appliqué with the strings sewn on. It takes up the whole upper yoke of the suit. The sides of the suit and the arms are all covered in musical notes,” she said.
The notes read as black in photos, and many are incorrectly, but artistically upside down and backward. They’re actually a deep, indigo blue, said Nudie, who considers that double-breasted suit among her grandfather’s most iconic, ranking with the rhinestoned, gold lame suit made for Elvis Presley and Graham Parsons’ marijuana leaf and pill capsule suit.
Mary Lynn Cabrall, who works as Nudie’s historian and designer, recreated the suit and other costumes for Poore.
“Nudie did a lot of things with appliqué and musical notes, but he never did exactly that suit again,” said Cabrall, who said double-breasted Nudie suits are rare.
With Nudie’s research, Poore designed other Western-style stage costumes Hiddleston wore, including a rhinestoned, white fringe shirt and pants, and a shirt with long fringe he wore at his second wedding.
“He came from no means. When we start at the beginning of his career, we tried to have him in just a Western shirt and pants. As he was starting to gain his notoriety, he dressed more elaborately. When he came into money, he blew through money. He loved clothes and cars,” Poore said. “He loved the lifestyle of a celebrity.”
Though he died more than 60 years ago, Williams’ songs, like I’m So Lonely I Could Cry, Hey, Good Lookin’, Your Cheatin’ Heart and Move It on Over, seem as fresh as ever, much like his unmistakable Western style.