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Meet the Designer Who Dressed Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry at the Oscars

Katja Cahill explains how she put together the Best Costume presenters’ ensembles, including a The Favourite–inspired cloak.

Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry in their outlandish Oscar duds.
Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry present the Best Costume Design award.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

By now you already know that Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry earned the title of best-dressed Oscar presenters on Sunday as they announced the award, appropriately, for Best Costume Design. Their period-spanning, glee-inducing outfits combined elements from all of the category’s nominees: The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Poppins Returns, and winner Black Panther.

What you don’t know, yet, is the backstory on how those ensembles came to be, as told by Katja Cahill, who has designed costumes for the Academy Awards for the past three years in a row. Slate spoke to Cahill, still recovering from a whirlwind weekend of sewing and bunny-affixing, about dressing McCarthy and Henry for the ceremony. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Slate: How did these costumes come together?

Katja Cahill: It was, I want to say, 52 bunnies in 48 hours. Donna Gigliotti, who produced the show, came to me. She said, “I met with Melissa [McCarthy] at a luncheon, she has this amazing idea. Can you please call her?” We put the call in, we missed her, and I think the next morning I got her—it’s all such a blur. That must have been Friday morning. She said, “I loved The Favourite. I want to do the Queen Anne cloak. I want bunnies trailing behind me, just over-the-top, wild.” I think she actually talked to Sandy Powell, who was the designer on that movie specifically and said, “We have this idea, would you be offended?” And [Powell] said, “Oh my God, no, go do it.”

The bunny cloak concept was really in [McCarthy’s] heart, and the Margot Robbie hairpiece reveal for Mary Queen of Scots as well. Those were her two key elements. She said, “I want both of us to have elements of all [the nominees]. I’ll reveal the hat from Buster. I want to be part Black Panther. [Henry] should be part Black Panther, Mary Poppins, whatever, find a funny way to make it wild.” She said, “I’m going to be the queen,” and Brian’s like, “I’ll be Emma Stone!” I think he was a real fan of the movie, too. But then he said, “I have to have the Michael B. Jordan bangs.”

I sat down and threw together these photo boards. I had Emma Stone from the neck down with Mary Poppins’ tie, and then I had Michael B. Jordan’s head there with Mary Poppins’ tilted hat.

Melissa McCarthy is trailed by an enormous train covered in rabbits.
The cloak.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Where did the bunnies come from?

We wanted to make bunnies, but we really didn’t have the time to turn out 52 realistic-looking bunnies. There’s a place called Moskatels downtown, which is like a massive Michael’s basically. We started there and we just started picking up collections everywhere from there to CVS pharmacy. The toy stores only have so many. I had about five shoppers. I said to my mother at one point, “If you’re at CVS, see what’s in the Easter section. Call me, send me pictures.”

We all came back with bags and bags. We wanted it to feel realistic but still silly. So we tried to put a variety of them. In The Favourite, she had so many different types, and they were her children. Some of them were pretty goofy. Some of them were dog toys! We were taking squeakers out of them. We thought the variety of having some standing, some sitting would feel like, “Oh, it’s her little court of bunnies.”

What about those amazing wigs?

I was like, “OK, we need this wig for Michael B. Jordan for Brian, and we need the Margot Robbie.” Now, that wig doesn’t exist, and that wig doesn’t happen synthetically, so our hairstylist came in. He had a long red wig, I think it was like a lace-front $2,000 wig or something crazy, and he cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. And he had Nair, he was Nair-ing the top.

How about the other elements of the costumes?

First of all, Black Panther was my life. Those costumes were everything. I’m so glad [designer Ruth Carter] won, she really deserved it. We tried to do her justice, and we added the face paint to [Henry’s] costume because we were worried that maybe the hair wouldn’t hit right away, like people wouldn’t get it until later. Melissa was like, “I really have to rep Black Panther. It’s really important that both of us are repping both.” She actually didn’t have an element of Mary Poppins, but we thought that we did so much to Brian, between the cape and the hat, down to the polka dot gloves.

And then that hat from Buster Scruggs, we figured that piece was such a specific visual. She had spurs on and different things to kind of help, but that hat, we both agreed, it was going to get the first visual and you knew where it was from. Then, in the final fittings, she looked at us and said, “There has to be a bunny on the hat.” So we put that little guy. I mean, he was super-glued down. We were like, “Please, bunny, don’t fall off.” We called him Roadkill Bunny.

A close-up of Melissa McCarthy in costume. Her wide-brimmed hat has a stuffed rabbit on it.
“Roadkill Bunny”
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What was it like getting McCarthy and Henry into the costumes during the actual show?

I was told they’d bring Brian in early right from the carpet. We were looking at the schedule saying, “Oh my god, we have to be ready at the top of show.” Talk about anxiety attack! Usually you have three days on something like this.

By the time they finally made it in the building, we did Brian’s first fitting, which was serious perfection. We just had to hem. And then Melissa, obviously being on the carpet everybody wanted to talk, we got her a little later. And then she ran in to hair and makeup right away. We got her, I would say 15 minutes before show. There were definitely bunnies with safety pins hidden at a certain point. She took her handpuppet, which I think really inspired her, and she walked. It was the first time she pulled this massive cloak. She said, “Oh my god, it’s heavy.” We built it with a little secret ingredient that let it glide on the stage because, truth be told, we never had rehearsal with it on that stage. My team sat in the back literally praying, “Please, don’t let it slip.”

It was a big hit.

Who knew? By the time we got downstairs there were memes and amazing articles.

What was the secret ingredient you mentioned to help the cloak glide?

We went back and forth—do we build a cardboard layer inside? We had to be so careful of the stage. There couldn’t be anything that could scratch or run, because there’s no time to fix. I just knew they would kill me if I did anything to ruin the stage. We got a very, very pliable soft plastic that held enough structure that sat on the bottom of the train, and then all of the bunnies that we adhered to the base, they were secured with glue and this and that, but they kind of became one with that costume piece through the fabric. We did a lot of testing. We had bunnies pulling up by their ears. We did not want to have a Gangs of New York dead rabbit situation. We wanted them to look alive and happy.

How many people did it take to bring this all together?

It was 10 in house, and then Maggie Barry [another costume designer] and her house, because we didn’t have a huge work room at Dolby. We went to Gaspar Gloves to make the Mary Poppins gloves in [Henry’s] size, because ladies’ red gloves don’t exist in his size off rack. And then Baron Hats because you cannot find that hat, even at some of the most Western houses that you can rent from. In the end with all the individual glove people and whatever, it was a team of probably 20 people. Melissa looked at us when we showed up at her house [for a fitting] like, “Um, why are there a million people here?”

We oversee the entire show. This year we did the Mary Poppins flying rig with that department. The moment the stars come in, they’ve made it down the carpet, and then there’s always something. I’ve had everybody from Armani to Chanel dresses being re-sewn in 10 minutes in the back room with five hands on the nominated actress because she just split the back of the gown. I’ve had heels break 30 seconds before show. This year, yes, that costume was my biggest and craziest, but many years we’re dressing 175 dancers. Being host-less gave us a bit of a breather.

Do you know what happened to the costumes from this year? Where are they now?

They’re assets of the Academy, so we’ll get them cleaned and restored and pressed properly. If we got lucky enough to end up in the Academy museum, how funny would that be?

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