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Oppenheimer’s Costume Designer Loves All of Your Barbenheimer Outfits

Jun 29, 2023

By Eileen Cartter

A year ago, the idea of moviegoers dressing up in suits and wide-brimmed hats to see Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic about theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer would’ve sounded absurd. One fateful scheduling matchup with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and (the disorienting state of meme economy) later, however, and suddenly Oppenheimer is this year’s #Gentleminions.

These are wackadoodle times, but the film’s costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, for one, is tickled.

“When Oppenheimer and Barbie collided in this magnificent starburst that only Oppenheimer could dream up, and then to see the cultural and financial result, was staggering,” says Mirojnick, who coincidentally was once attached to costume a previous iteration of the Barbie movie. When she visited a movie theater last month, she saw firsthand moviegoers across genders decked out in hot pink and Oppie ties. “Halloween will be quite the event this year,” she predicts. “I think Barbenheimer will have another go round for sure at the end of October.”

Benny Safdie as Edward Teller and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

As far as Mirojnick is concerned, however, the fact that Oppenheimer is as stylish as it is shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Oppenheimer, the man, took his clothes very seriously—his father, Julius, ran a textile importing firm in New York, and Oppie developed his good taste from an early age. His famous hat—which featured an unusual porkpie top with a wide, cowboyish brim—was a hybrid of sorts, likely shaped by his love for New Mexico. So, too, was his Indigenous-designed turquoise-inset silver belt buckle, which the costume team had recreated based on an archival photograph. “He used to use that buckle to strike the match to light his pipe or his cigarette,” she says, “so it was quite cowboy-esque.” (If you’re in the market for a similar buckle–as many of my GQ colleagues now are—Mirojnick suggests bringing a photo of it to a silversmith in Santa Fe and having them custom-make it for you.)

Both items feature prominently in one movie ensemble that Mirojnick calls Oppenheimer’s “mythic look,” which appears midway through the film. As Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer takes the reins at the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, he dons a suit tailored from hardy workwear fabric, a sky blue shirt, and a stout brown tie. “When he walks out of that office, he is the sheriff, make no bones about it. He owns that town that he built.”

Thanks to archival photographs, the costume team didn’t have to imagine how Oppenheimer or his colleagues dressed—and menswear-minded viewers might clock that many of the physicists alongside Oppenheimer at the Berkeley lab and Los Alamos seem peculiarly stylish. (No small feat, given how many guys [gender neutral] are in Oppenheimer.) This, as fans have noted, is a Nolan signature: “[Nolan] is a man that you see every day in a sport jacket, a waistcoat, and a shirt, so he is a fan of that type of silhouette and structure,” Mirojnick says. “I think that has a very particular masculine approach to his men.”

Murphy on set with director Christopher Nolan.

But it’s also a signature of Mirojnick’s, who has outfitted countless powerful figures throughout her legendary career. (“I love seeing men in suits,” she says.) Her credits include Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct and Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, the latter of which remains one of the most influential suiting movies ever. The costume designer says she wasn’t consciously thinking of Gekko when it came to dressing Oppie—another archetypal American man who wielded tremendous and destructive power—but she sees stylistic parallels between them. “I’ll be bold to say [Oppenheimer] took the same course as Gordon into becoming a self-made man, trusting and being empowered by his brain and his intelligence,” she says. “He knew [how] he could present to elicit what he needed.”

In the film, Oppenheimer’s keen sense of style also helps establish his real-life reputation as a womanizer. His clothes, Mirojnick says, were “simply elegant, but in a hugely seductive way.” Casting Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer also didn’t hurt, of course, as far as conveying sex appeal is concerned: “He could put anything on and make it look like a million dollars,” says Mirojnick, who was delighted by the actor’s premiere outfits before the cast halted their promotional run in solidarity with the SAG strike. “I was surprised at the sheer Saint Laurent, to be honest, because I wouldn’t have thought that he likes to bring that much attention. He has a perfect je ne sais quoi about him.”

It's that same sort of ineffable quality that hits at the core of the Barbenheimer experience. “One day when we study [how this phenomenon happened], I’d be hugely fascinated by why it became what it became,” she says, adding: “The ones who really pull the strings, it would be very nice if they really paid attention to what we have been part of, what history has brought us right now.”