Opening in theaters on Friday, September 22, “Battle of the Sexes” chronicles the legendary tennis match between 29-year-old top women’s player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 55-year-old washed up tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who bombastically proclaimed he could beat any female on the court. Not a spoiler because it’s history: She kicked his ass, as 90 million TV viewers watched around the world.
Even though the true life “Battle of the Sexes” took place back in 1973, the movie depiction of all the shit King had to put up with back then hits very close to home today (as many a resigned laugh and sigh during the industry screening also confirmed). When the movie opens, King, along with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, who effortlessly slides right into ’70s chic) heatedly debate tennis promoter (and sexist male asshole) Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, against-type) over equal prize money for men’s and women’s championships. Fast forward to early 2017, when Stone spoke out about the gender pay gap in Hollywood.
The movie also portrays King’s early trajectory in becoming an advocate for women’s rights and gender pay parity, as well as a pioneer for LGBQT awareness when the tennis champ starts to realize her own sexuality with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, always a chameleon). The story and messaging are all deftly supported by the ’70s costumes by Mary Zophres, so recreating parts of King’s well-documented, true life wardrobe was a crucial part of the project. Unsurprisingly, the two-time Oscar nominee found replicating King’s iconic white, blue and — at the very last minute — sequin and rhinestone-embellished “battle” dress (below) the most challenging because the climactic scene is interspersed with actual historical footage of the televised match.
“The challenges were trying to find the right fabrics — not a lot of polyester double-knit out in the fabric stores today — and to get all the details correct,” Zophres told Fashionista via email from the Nebraska Panhandle where she’s working on “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the Coen brothers’ upcoming TV series. “I really enjoyed executing it though. Getting it right felt like I was paying respect to the history of the match.”
Her meticulous effort paid off when the real King came to the set for a visit. “She said, ‘how did you get the dress?'” Zophres said in a production video. “That just made me so happy to think that we had gotten it so correct.” To finish off King’s celebrated look (above), Adidas studied its archives and custom-replicated “BJK”-monogrammed blue suede sneakers, which enjoy a script moment of their own, plus the remaining white tennis shoes for the rest of King’s Virginia Slims women’s tour players.
Aside from the televised “Battle,” everyone’s on-court wardrobes featured extreme proto-Williams sisters sartorial flair thanks to tennis couturier — yes, he’s a real and very interesting person — Ted Tinling, played by the forever amazing Alan Cumming, looking fly in natty turtlenecks, neck scarves and wide-lapel shirts. Because tennis can be a bit uptight when it comes to dress code — Wimbledon (still) has an all-white rule and the US Open only relaxed theirs in 1972, a year before the movie takes place — designing for the recently formed Virginia Slims tour allowed Tinling creative freedom to push the envelope.
“When I studied the research, I interpreted that Ted designed with the personalities of each girl in mind,” explained Zophres, who duplicated some looks, but also took inspiration from Tinling’s real-life designs to let loose herself. “Billie Jean’s tennis dresses were in sync with her personal style in life, off the court: classic with bold and graphic accents. Most dresses still had a white base and their accents were done with primary colors.”
She also noted that while Tinling communicated each of the players’ personal style through their individual outfits, like Rosie’s (Natalie Morales, top right and above far left) color quadrants and “gigantic bow appliqué” or pastels with butterfly accents on others, he made a special effort to distinguish King’s admired qualities. “Ted designed for Billie Jean in a way that was a little bit different than all the other women,” she added. “It was a little bit more classic. He added some injections of color. but it was more restrained than what he did for the other women. It looked good on Emma, it suited her.”
Of course, fashion is always a sign of the times, too — and there was a lot going on in the ’70s. “The idea of self-expression through your clothes really started to come in to play in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Zophres also said in the video. “So our movie is telling a story about women and the women’s movement, the history of that and also the history of fashion. There were a lot of things that were swirling around in the world in 1973 and we touch upon a lot of them.”
King’s confidence in self-expression is also revealed through her off-the-court wardrobe, which gave Zophres her opportunity to imagine and create fully original looks, instead of replicating historical ones. She also took inspiration from Stone herself, whom she’s previously outfitted in ’20s looks in “Gangster Squad” and Old Hollywood-inspired contemporary dresses in “La La Land.”
“I was free to develop a look for Emma, inspired by Billie Jean and meant to impart her essence, but also [a look that worked] with Emma. Before this film, to me Emma was like a delicate flower,” she explained. Zophres noted how Stone transformed her frame into a more athletic physique, which in turn influenced her non-tennis looks as King. “Anything that felt un-athletic or too cute was discarded and we used button-down shirts, turtlenecks and vests. I used trousers for most of her changes and a lot of strong, primary ‘athletic’ colors for her. The object was to toughen Emma up a bit – and we learned she can go that way easily.”
Thanks to costume — plus, hair, makeup and excellent dental prosthetics — Carell is a dead ringer for Riggs, with a dash of Austin Powers and a lot of Donald Trump. His signature tracksuits, of which he wears many, perfectly hang on him with this serial-hustler-with-a-gambling-issue slouch. “We tried period prototypes on Steve to get the fit right,” explained Zophres, about custom-building Carell’s sportswear sets. “Very few period tracksuits still exist with both of their pieces. I think it’s because original owners really wore them out and also the [jacket and pant] pieces got split up from each other.” Good point. (Although, maybe his most famously reenacted photo moment didn’t involve any costume at all.)
When Zophres didn’t custom-build tennis dresses, sweatsuits, “40 percent of Emma’s civilian clothes” and all of Marilyn’s notably excellent denim, she and her team shopped online on Etsy and eBay, plus in-store at Playclothes on Magnolia Avenue in Burbank for authentic vintage. For Riggs’s fancy wife Priscilla’s (Elisabeth Shue) posh ’70s pussy bowed jumpsuits and shimmery lurex dresses, she scoured rental houses in Los Angeles: Palace Costume, Eastern Costume and Western Costume.
Although, the hottest costume pieces skew more on the casual side. In the movie, the courts and bleachers are dotted with flashes of graphic T-shirts, including a copy of Riggs’s famously-photographed “chauvinist” pig tee and a Team Billie Jean-esque one, emblazoned with a sketch drawing of Stone as King.
“We made about 15 to 20 different designs of t-shirts to use just for the ‘battle’ audience alone,” Zophres explained. “The most coveted one was the one we made with Emma’s face on it — everyone wanted one of those!” Well, duh.
‘Battle of the Sexes’ opens in select theaters on Friday, Sept. 22.