Winner of best supporting actress at the BAFTAs, Academy Awards, Oscars and Golden Globes, Laura Dern has certainly turned heads this awards season – and rightly so. Her performance in Noah Baumbach’s emotional divorce drama Marriage Story is powerful and nuanced and this is underpinned by her character’s striking wardrobe.
In Marriage Story Dern plays a powerful, savvy lawyer – Nora – who acts on behalf of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as she seeks a divorce from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) and tries to obtain custody of her son. Throughout the film, Nora’s outfits work to emphasise her experience and her power as a highly sought-after solicitor. However, in his choice of dress for Dern, costume designer Mark Bridges (who also designed the costumes for another 2020 hit, The Joker) highlights the particular potency of Nora’s feminine power in the largely male-dominated field of law. Nora’s character capitalises on her femininity through her clothing, projecting an image of herself that is unapologetic and confident, asserting her authority and, most importantly, bringing focus to her client.
At the beginning of the film, Nora and Nicole meet in her office. In this scene, Nicole is clearly nervous – worried that she’s done the wrong thing by hiring a lawyer – even though she agreed with Charlie that they would proceed without them. Nicole turns up in a blue shirt and jeans – a staple look of hers. By contrast, Nora wears an overtly feminine pink floral blazer with skin-tight jeans and high, bright red heels. This establishes an obvious contrast between the two women, we sense that they are not going to get along and have completely different priorities. But as the meeting progresses, she positions herself as a likeable but capable lawyer. As Nicole begins to get emotional, opening up to Nora about the difficulties in her marriage, Dern removes her floral blazer, revealing a plain white top. This tones down her outfit to match the simplicity of her potential client, her exposed arms being suggestive of both vulnerability and strength.
Later on, in the courtroom scene, Nora’s dress again resonates with Nicole’s and is suggestive of the solidarity between the two. In one shot, the pair are sat on a bench in a hallway in an almost identical pose – legs crossed and hands in their lap, although Nora seems more relaxed. Here, Nora wears a light pink dress, a dark grey blazer with rolled-up sleeves and Louboutin shoes, whilst Nicole appears in a purple dress spotted with flecks of pink and white and a blue blazer. They enter the courtroom together: their visual similarity unites them as a team but their dark blazers also echo the dress of Charlie and his team of lawyers. This resonance indicates a certain harmony and civility amongst the group – they all share a common goal. That is, until Nora removes her blazer.
As things begin to get heated, Laura Dern’s character removes her outwear to reveal the dress underneath. This garment is closely fitted and silky in texture – a light pink dress over what looks like a black slip. By removing her blazer Nora differentiates herself from the other lawyers by highlighting her femininity: the dress almost resembles lingerie, attracting attention and representing her as the bolder, more confident lawyer. Embracing her sexuality, the colour of her dress also highlights the ‘men versus women dynamic’ previously hidden by professional niceties.
However, by removing her blazer Nora also distances herself from Nicole. Nicole does not speak in this scene and Nora takes charge of the situation, removing the pretence that the power is shared between them: her experience and knowledge means that she knows best. Indeed, this foreshadows the ending of the film in which Dern’s character negotiates a custody agreement that privileges Nicole’s access to her son over Charlie’s, despite Nicole insisting against it.
In Marriage Story, Laura Dern’s costumes play an important part in emphasising the three-dimensionality of her supporting character. This, paired with her outstanding, subtle acting makes the character of Nora especially memorable.