Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Bringing 1970s Mexico to Life in ‘Roma’ With Costume Design


Alfonso Cuarón’s films have taken us many places: a WWI-era boarding school, the world of Charles Dickens, Hogwarts, dystopian futures, and outer space. But his most recent film, the acclaimed Roma, takes audiences somewhere far more intimate and personal: a place inspired by his own childhood. Set in 1970s Mexico, the film depicts the life of a domestic worker who both works for and is a part of a middle-class family. As with any Cuarón movie, immersing us in another place (and another time, in this case) is one of Roma’s major accomplishments. It’s also something that wouldn’t be possible without the film’s wonderful costume design. We spoke with costume designer Anna Terrazas about how she designed the costumes that helped make Roma feel so real.


Researching History and Memory

Costume design for period pieces requires extensive research with historical materials that will guide the design process. Bringing 1970s Mexico to life for Roma relied on expected resources like newspapers, magazines, books, the internet, and photographs of the time — but one of the most important resources proved to be Alfonso Cuarón himself, as well as his family.

Since Roma draws so heavily on the Cuarón family’s childhoods, the movie’s costumes would have to draw from the same source, as well. “We got to talk to them and do really deep research around what they were wearing at that time,” says Terrazas. That would lead to wardrobe influenced by, or directly reproducing, their memories.

Access to Cuarón’s mind and memories was also important because that’s where Roma’s story lived. By design, the director wasn’t sharing the script with many people. “Great, but how am I going to design this without a script?” Terrazas recalls thinking. Instead, Cuarón shared the story with her in an unconventional way. “I sat down with him for four hours and he told me the entire story scene by scene,” she says. “I actually wrote an entire notebook of everything. I was writing like crazy. That notebook became our bible.”

The family in 'Roma'
The family in Roma

The director would remain an ongoing resource. During pre-production, Terrazas’ research would be uploaded to Dropbox and checked by the director, whose feedback influenced the mood board for how Roma and Terrazas would proceed.

Creating Class

Roma isn’t just a personal project, but a political one that doesn’t shy away from reflecting on the state of Mexico then (and now). In particular, the film reflects on class. To depict the socioeconomic divisions in Roma required designing different fashions and aesthetics for a broad range of classes.

“We had so many different worlds in the film, and each one of them was a lot of work,” says Terrazas. Often those worlds would appear in the same sequence, like a New Year’s Eve event at an opulent hacienda where the upper-class parties upstairs, while their workers celebrate downstairs. Another example is scenes set around a movie theater, where we see street vendors selling their wares outside, and formally dressed middle-class families going inside.

The breadth of representation was driven by Cuarón’s memory. He would often find himself remembering characters from his youth and have them added to the roster of individuals to depict in the project. “It was a huge list. Every day we would add a little bit more,” Terrazas says. “Then, once we added it, it was time to research and say ‘Okay, what is this person wearing in that time and how did they used to dress?’” In other words, Cuarón pointed the way, and Terrazas realized it.

Extras in 'Roma'
Extras in Roma

A Black-and-White World

As Terrazas was designing costumes to capture class and Cuarón’s memories, there was an additional consideration: the director wanted to shoot exclusively in black-and-white. And what looks good in color won’t appear the same way in black-and-white, requiring adjustments. “At the same time, when we were designing, we were thinking ‘Okay what contrast do we want in this outfit?’” she explains.

You have to think differently about color as a result. “It takes your imagination somewhere else,” she says. “You train your eyes to see colors in the hues of the gray from the whites and blacks.” Training was assisted by preparation. “We had this color chart that translated colors into which gray and what contrast to use,” the costume designer says.

That would come in handy for the vast number of black-and-white friendly costumes required. Because as intimate as Roma is, it features set pieces with a large number of extras. All of whom needed to be black-and-white compatible. (“At least three times a day, we would sit down and have a meeting because it was just so much,” she reveals.)

VW Beetle in 'Roma'
A VW Beetle representing the time period in Roma

Challenging as it was, this setup could also yield levity that Terrazas recalls fondly. “It was really funny, because you would see people dressed on set, and sometimes it was a crazy combination. It was because it was giving the right contrast that we wanted on film. It was really fun to see how people were reacting on set.”

Designing Cleo

When you watch (or rewatch) Roma, look at what its protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is wearing and you might notice something. “Not a lot of people realize it, but we wanted to translate what was happening to her into her wardrobe,” says Terrazas. Without going into spoilers, Cleo goes from a good to a bad place, then back to good, throughout the film. Her narrative and emotional arc was sewn by Terrazas into the very fabric of her clothes.

“As soon as the film starts, Cleo is wearing more light colors,” the designer explains. “But as the film goes on, and stuff starts happening to Cleo in her life, she starts to dress more in dark colors.” Until she finds herself back in a better place and returns to lighter clothes, that is.

Cuarón and Terrazas were also tracking that color and emotional progression through the story. They would debate what hue Cleo would wear during any given sequence, then make note of it. “We actually had a guide of, ‘from this scene to this scene, she’s wearing more lights, then we start to go more into grays, and then we go more into blacks,” she explains.

Alfonso Cuaron with Yalitza Aparicio
Alfonso Cuaron with actress Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma

Making Old (and New) Worlds Believable

When Terrazas began working on Roma, she was nervous at the prospect of bringing Cuarón’s personal story to screen. “I was more afraid at the beginning. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s his story, we have to do this right,’” she admits. But with time and work, those worries went away — in good part because her costume-design philosophy aligned well with a movie that was drawing on personal and real memories. “I don’t like to create characters that are not believable in this world,” she adds.

The specificity and detail that Cuarón strived for is very much what Terrazas believes in when it comes to creating with costume design. “I don’t like new clothes in a film, because that’s not reality,” she says, as an example. In the case of Roma, she made sure all the clothes and shoes looked distressed enough to convey a realistic sense that they had been worn and lived in. She also frequented flea markets to track down a Mexican brand of Wrangler jeans that was worn during the time because it was more affordable for some, and because Mexican fashion was generally lagging behind America’s. All of it was vital for audience immersion – especially in 1970s Mexico.

“I feel that’s my philosophy,” Terrazas concludes. “To really create a character for the script that works with the other people and with the audience that’s going to see it.”

Top: Yalitza Aparicio in Roma. All images from Roma courtesy of Netflix.