The lights dim, the movie screen interjects floating conversations and popcorn munching. Moviegoers are transported into the world of film, and in order to keep them there, the make-believe world has to look real, down to the clothes that the actors wear.
That doesn’t just mean choosing the outfits, it means making them look authentic. The perfect lived in leather jacket, faded band tee, and shoes that have walked the streets. The clothes that your favorite actors wear are brand new, but they don’t look it, thanks to textile artists like Charlotte native Jack Taggart.
Taggart attended UNC Charlotte, where he received a degree in the arts and discovered he had a knack for design. That’s also where he met his mentor Bob Croghan, who recognized his talents early and encouraged him to apply to graduate school in San Diego, California.
“I loaded up a U-Haul van and towed my Volkswagen Beetle cross country,” Taggart said. “As terrifying as it was, it was also kind of empowering because I figured out I can do this. Don’t think small, think big.”
At UC San Diego, Taggart took classes from Deborah Dryden, author of Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre; and Robert Israel, renowned costume and set designer. He graduated with a degree in design for theatre in 1991 and began his career designing for regional theatre.
More than three decades after that humble beginning, in recognition of a career that’s seen him working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Taggart will be honored during UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture 2023 Distinguished Alumni Awards, representing the theatre concentration, alongside four other impressive alumni. The ceremony will be held on March 30 at 11:30 a.m. in the Anne R. Belk Theater and is open to the public.
Aging, dying and restoration
As a costume ager, it’s not Jack Taggart’s job to design the wardrobes the actors in a given production are wearing, it’s his job to make them look lived in — sometimes brutally so.
Taggart often has to age expensive couture pieces. He has had to age $8,000 Louboutins and $600 T-shirts, because some celebrities only like the feel of certain fabrics. He has had to age priceless, handmade pieces, like the costumes made out of beetle wings on Snow White and the Huntsman, which he suggests would be easily $50,000 taking into account materials, labor and time.
He tries not to ask for prices of the clothes he ages so it doesn’t make him nervous when he throws the fabrics into boiling water or sets a coat on fire.
“You get used to it after a while, you’re like, ‘Oh well this is a $6,000 dress. I’m just gonna set it on fire and rip it,’” Taggart said. “Then you have to buy six of them because that scene has a sequence where they get shot and they run down the street and then the aliens hit them with green goo and you just never know what’s gonna happen.”
Sometimes Taggart takes a break from fires and fabric ripping to go in the opposite direction: clothing restoration. Vintage pieces are often used in films, but when the wear is apparent it needs to be repaired. He re-treats and conditions leather, dyes or paints it; he re-adheres fur coats that are falling apart; he ensures that the clothing not only looks good on a mannequin but can maintain movement from the actors.
Taggart said his favorite restoration project was a green dress he restored for Angelina Jolie. He replaced the lace, restored fading, and dyed the fabric to the very particular shade of green that Jolie prefers.
“She’s rather picky about clothes she’ll wear. There’s color she doesn’t like and there’s cuts she doesn’t like,” Taggart said.
It was while working with Jolie that Taggart experienced his first overwhelming paparazzi experience. He recalled that every time she stepped out of her trailer, men with cameras would emerge from bushes and behind fences for their shot at the perfect picture to sell.
“You have to always be aware of people coming up. I get people requesting things on social media. They say, ‘Oh, you worked on this movie, might you have these costumes? Can I buy that from you?’” Taggart explained. “It’s a different world.”
Taggart said that when working in film it’s important to stay professional and respect the actors’ space, because they are just normal people doing their job. When celebrities are stripped down to their underwear in costuming, they might not be enthralled to get a request for a picture or autograph.
“As impressed as you can be, you hold that in, because they don’t need that. They just need someone to do their job,” he said.
The most holding-in Taggart has had to do was when he met Tom Cruise. Every time he returned home to the East Coast, his high school friends would ask about the star. They’ve now worked together four or five times.
“He’s just normal and fun and very appreciative. He’s just a good guy and he’s focused and professional,” Taggart said. “He really cares about the product and what he’s doing. He’s very hands-on and he’ll have lots of opinions about every element of the film.”
Tom Hanks is also a favorite of Taggart’s. He worked with Hanks on Cast Away, in which the main character Chuck fights to survive on a desert island. For the role, Hanks wore a loincloth made out of an old leather dress. After the team made about 50 loincloths, they finally settled on one.
While taking photos of the loin cloth on Hanks at the fitting, the team decided they needed photos outside in the sun since the movie was set on a beach, but they didn’t want to put Hanks outside in the studio lot with tourists driving by.
“I got to put it on. There was this moment where he’s stripping down and taking it off and handing it to me and he says, ‘We’ll take care of it. Thanks for warming it up for me,’” Taggart recalled of his interaction with Hanks. “I’m standing outside with my shirt off with a loincloth on. It’s just part of the job.”
Beginning in theatre
It didn’t take long for Jack Taggart to realize that theatre design wasn’t going to make him a living, so Taggart began to supplement his income working at non-union shops building fantasy costumes. There he met Emmy-winning designer Julie Weiss, who introduced the idea of working on feature films.
His first job in the Motion Picture Costumers union, IATSE local 705, was Galaxy Quest, a 1999 sci-fi comedy featuring Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen and Alan Rickman.
“I got in the union on that and I just kept working ever since,” Taggart said.
Over time, Taggart has become a popular call in Hollywood. In 2012, he realized his dream, which was to work with director Quentin Tarantino. After helping with costume design on the sets of Django Unchained, he got a callback to work with the iconic director again on The Hateful Eight.
It’s not all westerns, though. He’s also worked on the Avatar films, which remain some of his favorite projects.
“The Avatar projects were amazing because that was stuff that no one had ever done before. People still don’t understand how we did the costume work on that,” Taggart said. “You think it’s all animated, but we actually built the real costumes and they filmed them in motion and then they applied that algorithm into the film.”
Taggart also worked on the set of war film Dunkirk, where he set flame to thousands of brand new military uniforms so that they looked like they had been through battle. He had crews in London, France and Amsterdam to help with the huge number of costumes.
Taggart travels often for his job. He has lived in places like Prague and Morocco for three or four months at a time.
“You develop friendships with the local teams and that just opens up your world even more,” Taggart said.
Currently, he is working on a film written by Francis Ford Coppola called Megalopolis that has been in the works for 30 to 40 years. It is a metaphor for the fall of a society set in modern day New York City.
For Megalopolis, Taggart has been working alongside four-time Oscar-winning designer Milena Canonero, who he was introduced to during the filming of Dunkirk. After seven months of filming in Atlanta, the team has finally wrapped.
“It’s a really interesting project and Milena works unlike any other designer I’ve ever worked with before. It’s very challenging. We’re doing long days, sometimes 14 or 16 hours and sometimes it’s six days a week,” Taggart said. “As exhausting as the work is, you get to work on stuff that’s seen by everyone and lives forever on the screen.”
In the future, Jack Taggart hopes to work on more period dramas and war movies. As much as he dislikes guns and war, he feels it is important to tell the stories and show how horrible war can be.
He also hopes to do more work with some of his favorite directors, including Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.
“Anything that if the projects good with talented directors and designers, the actors are good, it’s a privilege to work on those shows,” Taggart said.
He currently has his eyes on a project called Devil in the White City, adapted from a best-selling book, that Leonardo DiCaprio is producing and Martin Scorcese is set to direct. The project is currently on hold, but when it resurfaces Taggart said he’ll be hoping for that call.
“Anything with a really good story. The writing is key. You can do anything you want with the biggest budgets in the world, but if the writing is weak, it’s just an awful project,” he said.
He added that even the unfavorable projects come with silver linings in the form of contacts and experiences with new people. He always appreciates the people that work with him, and he likes his department to be the calm in the storm on every set, despite deadlines that can seem impossible to meet.
“I always get comments from people that I work with. ‘God your room is so nice. Everyone else is freaking out and pulling their hair out, but you guys seem like you’re having a good time in here,’” Taggart said. “So of course we’re having a good time. It always gets done. Nothing is impossible if you believe you can do it. My motto is always, ‘It’ll be fine, when do you need it?’”
A lot of people have dreams in the arts that seem impossible to achieve. They might be told that the arts aren’t profitable or “realistic.” Jack Taggart disagrees.
Confidence is key, he insists, and so is being kind and staying down to earth. Taggart says an important part of being in the arts, and film specifically, is developing a team of people in the industry that support you, and whom you can support as well.
“Dream big. Don’t dream small because if you dream small, that’s as big as your life will be,” Taggart said. “If you dream big, you can have a life you never thought you could have. Don’t listen to naysayers.”
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