Becoming Lisbeth

The Great Transformation of Rooney Mara Into Lisbeth Salander

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star has made a name for herself with head-turning dresses. Isabel Wilkinson on Mara’s daring Golden Globe dress, her secretive stylist, and how fashion may help her gain recognition in Hollywood.

During the filming of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara was under wraps. There was no sight of her on the streets of Stockholm, where the movie was being filmed. A first look at Mara as Lisbeth Salander published by W magazine in February of last year revealed an 180-degree shift from the wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked co-ed who had appeared in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Her skin was porcelain, her cheeks hollow, and her hair had been cut into high, blunt bangs. She was covered with tattoos. Fincher’s Eliza Doolittle was born.

Now Mara is practically ubiquitous. Since early December, she has shown up on red carpets around the world as she promotes Dragon Tattoo. She burst onto the scene in a white Givenchy Haute Couture dress at the film’s London premiere, stunned in a revealing black cutout dress by Prabal Gurung in New York; and wore a revealing black pantsuit by Roksanda Ilincic in Stockholm, Rodarte in Madrid, and a black leather Michael Kors dress in Berlin. “To be elegant and edgy at the same time—she’s finding that balance in a great way,” Kors told The Daily Beast. And, describing his design, said, “The dress was perfect on her, I loved the geometric look with her bangs. It was sexy without being obvious.”

Since she graced the cover of Vogue in November, one thing has been clear: Rooney Mara is a fashion force. In her public appearances, her aesthetic is dark and edgy, usually a little revealing, and always extremely sleek. It’s a long way from the baby-doll pastels, ruffles, and prints she wore as late as 2009. If Salander were forced to do red carpet appearances, this, surely, is what she would wear. The Prabal Gurung dress Mara wore to the New York premiere had, according to the designer, “a feminine appeal but the overall look showed such strength and depth...much like the character she plays in the film.”

In a way, Mara seems to be quietly running an Oscar campaign through her fashion. The Academy loves personal transformation (see Charlize Theron in Monster) and ingénues (Ellen Page in Juno). Through her fashion choices, Mara appears to embody her character in a permanent campaign, which could appeal to the Academy’s sensibilities. But veteran stylist Jessica Paster says appearing too fashion-forward in the carefully styled world of Hollywood is a risk. “When you dress too edgy, Oscar people don’t get it,” she said. “When someone is an up-and-comer, [stylists] often try to make her into a cookie-cutter starlet. It’s nice that people are allowing Rooney to be herself.”

Trish Summerville, who designed the costumes for the film, said Mara has “absorbed pieces of Lisbeth, but made it into her own style.” She called Mara a fan of fashion who “was so involved and vocal” during all aspects of dressing as Lisbeth on set. Often, Mara would pick pieces she wanted to wear in the film, said Summerville.

But Mara’s new look is the work of Ryan Hastings, a well-respected stylist who counts Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson as clients. A former fashion editor who has slowly taken on celebrity styling, Hastings is highly secretive and doesn’t have a publicist, an agent, or even a website. Friends and colleagues describe him as introspective and highly professional. “He does red carpet in a way that’s fashion and is not just dress-and-shoes,” said friend and stylist Danielle Nachmani.

Hastings is said to have an unofficial “uniform” of his own, which consists of jeans, a gray T-shirt, and a black hat. When he goes to Paris, one friend said, he packs his clothes in a single backpack. This sense of uniform dictates his sense of style with clients, too. As one friend says, “[Ryan] identifies well with the idea of having a brand for a person.” (He’s perfected the “dirty-Brit” look with Pattinson, for whom he does a lot of vintage shopping.) Hastings, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is known for fashion-forward choices and brings those sensibilities to the stars he dresses.

“When he’s dealing with a celebrity, it’s not a big song and dance,” said photographer Mark Segal, who has worked with Hastings on shoots for Interview magazine and Teen Vogue. “He doesn’t do a fake celebrity thing. He knows what it means to understand a celebrity’s style, but he can also do something more edgy for a high-fashion publication.”

Mara’s next fashion moment will be at the Golden Globes on Sunday, where she is nominated for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. But only time will tell if it is, in the words of Kors, a case of “fashion kismet: the right woman in the right dress at the right moment.”