She clothed Michael Jackson, the Blues Brothers, and most influentially, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. And yet costume designer Deborah Nadoolman is still virtually anonymous.
There are some names—important names—in American fashion that most Americans don’t pronounce correctly. Ralph Lauren, for example. The emphasis is on the first syllable of his last name, Bronx-style; not the second syllable, a la Française. (It’s made up anyway, but Lifshitz just doesn’t have that all-American magic tone, does it?) So it is too with Charles James, America’s first couturier. That’s “cha” as in chance and dja and as in that lunch-hour Philly query, djeet? It isn’t, as I’ve heard it, pronounced Sharles Jam. Dude was born in Surrey, lived in Chi-town, died in Manhattan.
In the case of these designers we at least know their names and their work. But who has ever heard of Deborah Nadoolman enough to even mispronounce her name? It’s Na-DOOL-man, by the way, not NA-dool-man.
And yet the 64-year-old silver-haired chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA is the woman who has had perhaps the strongest, most unheralded, and unremunerated influence on what American men wear today.
As a film costume designer more than four decades, Nadoolman has created some of the most iconic pieces of menswear on Earth. The candy-apple red leather jacket from Thriller: Nadoolman. The two-tone black suit, white shirt; black sunglasses, white socks; black tie and white guy look from The Blues Brothers: Nadoolman. Belushi’s College sweatshirt from Animal House: Nadoolman. And, perhaps most enduringly, that national rhapsody in tan and khaki, the marriage of linen and leather, of dering-do and spartan reticence that was Harrison Ford’s costume in Raiders of the Lost Ark: Nadoolman. Nadoolman, dayenu.
Handsome AF, tenured and tenacious, with more grit than unrinsed arugula and more reserve than Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Indiana Jones seemed cut from the broadcloth of the ideal American male. Here was a man who could deliver a compelling academic lecture, negotiate booby traps in a jungle, and handle a whip like a dominatrix. The entire film is an elaborate and very enjoyable pedestal to raise him to the heroic. But where does it start? With our hero crashing through the jungle in a linen shirt half undone and stained with sweat, a beat-up brown leather jacket in the hot hot heat, and on his head that the most mythic of hats, a snap-brim fedora. That’s our first vision of our hero, and it’s so complete it seems Indiana Jones wasn’t created or written. The films simply opened a window into a parallel world wherein he was already extant, fully realized, and fully clothed.
So no one can blame anyone for ingesting the costume without pausing to think that someone created it. And that’s partially why the name Nadoolman—like the names Anthony Powell and Joanna Johnston and Judianna Makovsky and scores of other costume designers—receive credit only in the narrowest of definition of the word: as a brief entry in the credit crawl at the end of a picture.
“Many times you could say that we’re punished for our virtuosity,” says Nadoolman, “because it should look real, the movie should appear to be have been created by no one. So the less you see our hands, the less they look like costumes because you’re meant to believe.”
Oysters. Oysters and champagne by a pool in an old U-boat bunker at La Rochelle, on the Western edge of France on the Bay of Biscaye, the night before the first day of filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s where a brown leather jacket from the English costumer Bermans & Nathans with brass D-rings at the waist and brass zippers became Indiana Jones’s hero jacket. Literally, it is called a hero jacket, the jacket in the image of which all following jackets were made.
As Nadoolman explains it, after a dinner of oysters and champagne with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and producer Howard Kazanjian, she sat by the pool with Ford, his then-girlfriend and future-wife, Melissa Mathison, and the actress Karen Allen, and sandpapered the shit out of the jacket. Ford was a carpenter and carried a big Swiss Army knife. She used that, too. And mineral oils to soften it. Until hours later, as the constellations arose over the old fort, just hours before the 5 a.m. call time, the jacket had taken on a life of its own.
It isn’t really that Nadoolman invented Indiana Jones’s look. “Indiana Jones already existed as an archetype,” she explained. “In the 1940s there were adventure serials that showed Saturday mornings that inspired George and Steven. Charlton Heston was in two movies—1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth and 1954’s Secret of the Incas—in which he wears pretty much the exact same outfit as Indy.” But, says Nadoolman, it was the combination of the character and Ford’s unique traits that softened the look from swashbuckling to relatable. “Harrison’s so reticent,” she recalls, “he’s a hero manqué: vulnerable, and intellectual.” So when she adapted those outfits of yesteryear to the vulnerable bookishness of Ford, she incorporated his softer traits. “He’s in brown because he works in the Earth; he’s brown because he’s approachable and vulnerable,” she says, “He and the dust are the same color.”