The following article was orginally published by The New York Times
If Ken Kesey and Alessandro Michele of Gucci had a passel of kids, their offspring might look something like the high-spirited ménage of Captain Fantastic, about a family living off the grid in the densely wooded Pacific Northwest.
In the movie Ben, the patriarch (Viggo Mortensen), and his rambunctiously inventive brood, dress in a giddy pastiche of homespun togs and hand-me-downs: country plaids, fringed ponchos, thrift-shop sweaters and patchwork vests — a visual hybrid, in short, of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (minus the drugs) and the recent Gucci runway.
Set firmly in the here and now, Matt Ross’s film, with its queerly rusticated look, is a hymn just the same to a hippie-frontier ethos that has persisted since the ’60s, having long since woven itself into the national psyche.
The look is largely the handiwork of Courtney Hoffman, the movie’s 31-year-old costume designer. But any connection to a backwoods Gucci is purely coincidental, Ms. Hoffman said. Still, she said, her costumes do share a mood with that of Mr. Michele, who once offhandedly confided that his signature fashion mash-ups were inspired in part by the inmates of a local asylum outside his native Rome.
“Our costumes, too, come from a place of freedom,” said Ms. Hoffman, who was the costume designer on Quentin Tarantino’s frontier slash-fest The Hateful Eight. “Our idea was to have the cast make wardrobe choices not influenced by what anyone they knew would wear.”
A spirit of improvisation governed those choices, lending Ben, his wife, Leslie (seen in occasional flashbacks), and their clan of six a touch of whimsy intermingled with a rough-hewed practicality. Cast members, especially the children, were encouraged to select what they would wear from a raffishly assembled communal wardrobe.
“We would pile the clothes on the floor in the fitting room and let them choose,” Ms. Hoffman said. She encouraged them to pick out a beefy sweater here, a zanily embroidered jeans jacket there, and put the items together in the way the denizens of early hippie encampments might have done.
“I had to keep asking the 16-year-old twins, ‘If your spirit wanted you to wear a dress, what would it look like?’” Ms. Hoffman asked. “I’d say, ‘Don’t pick a dress because your friend would wear it.’”
“I got them to stop shaving their armpits,” she added. “Shaving is a choice you make, because society says you’re obliged to.”
Society only belatedly intrudes on the family’s hermetic world, in which the children, who bear mythical sounding names like Bodevan, Rellian and Nai, chatter in Esperanto and are conversant in Karl Marx, the Bill of Rights, hunting and extreme rock climbing. “Nothing, down to their socks and underwear, was not part of telling their story,” Ms. Hoffman said.
Style and character are fused in the towheaded person of Zaja (Shree Crooks), who alternately wears a boiler suit and a gas mask (“She has this fascination with genocide,” Ms. Hoffman said matter-of-factly) and, at other times, a bobcat hat made from roadkill, which the designer had an Etsy vendor stitch and repurpose.
Other items were culled from thrift and vintage stores in or around the film locations, Washington state and the Arizona desert. The floral-and-weed garlands worn by the children in key scenes “we found on the side of the road wherever we happened to be,” she said.
More ruggedly functional items — overalls, chambray shirts and the like — came directly from the archives of Carhartt, Filson and other standard-bearers of authentic American work wear. Ms. Hoffman’s objective was to imbue the production with realness, down to the garment Ben wears to his wife’s funeral: a jauntily patterned red Western shirt that Mr. Mortensen wore to his own first wedding.
The film’s mostly earth-tone palette is punctuated here and there by burned scarlet, magenta and the kind of bilious green that was known in the ’70s as avocado.
“This story is so colorful, these kids are so colorful, with such an exploratory, questioning, philosophical spirit,” Ms. Hoffman said. “I thought, ‘Why would you ever want to mute that?’”