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Minka Kelly and Oprah Winfrey Become Retro '60s Housewives (Well, Sorta) With the Help of One Woman

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Courtesy Ruth Carter; Courtesy The Weinstein Company

It’s tough to make thoroughly modern stars like Oprah Winfrey and Minka Kelly look downright retro, but that wasn’t costume designer Ruth Carter‘s chief concern about filming with the stars on the set of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Rather, she had to conquer being absolutely starstruck about meeting Winfrey for the first time. “The first five minutes you are like, ‘Oh my God!’” she tells PEOPLE.

But soon it was down to business. To prepare for the film, which centers on Cecil Gaines, a White House butler during eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986, Carter pored over hundreds of historical images to create the perfect look, both for the main characters and the fashion plates in the White House during that time, including Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy, as played by Minka Kelly (above left).

“They all have a fashion direction and they all made their mark in fashion,” Carter says of the fashionable first ladies. She lucked out for some of the major looks; rather than having to create an Oleg Cassini lookalike outfit for Kelly, she landed this lovely yellow coat at The Paper Bag Princess in L.A.

Oprah The Butler
Courtesy Ruth Carter; Courtesy The Weinstein Company

And then there was Oprah’s character Gloria, who is married to the Butler of the title. For this particular look, Carter turned to her favorite magazine growing up. “Most African-American women my age were raised with a subscription to Ebony,” she says. “I made Gloria the typical Ebony woman. She is an upper-middle class woman who is the pillar of her neighborhood. She’s a wife, a mother and her husband has a good job. We used to fantasize about what life like that would be.”

The biggest challenge of all, she says, were the butler costumes for Forest Whitaker’s character. “If you were to look at our call sheet, you would notice we were jumping from 1950 to 1980 back to 1960 all in one day.” This required paying close attention to the subtle changes tuxedos went through over time. “With Eisenhower it was pleated pants and wider lapels,” Carter explains. “Then in the ’60s [they referenced James] Bond and there were slightly thinner lapels. Then we go into the ’80s and all of a sudden things land somewhere in the middle.”

Tell us: What do you think of Kelly and Winfrey’s transformations?

–Mia McNiece