“If a costume goes unnoticed by the audience, it is likely because it’s doing its job well…”

by Kate Abnett
One of the most memorable, sensitive moments of fashion and film touching palms was when menswear designer Tom Ford turned film director for A Single Man. Yes, Colin Firth’s costumes were manufactured at the Tom Ford factory in Italy, but the real reason for the film’s success went far beyond product placement. A Single Man was a study of character, of human interactions, mediating on the themes of self-control and self-preservation. When they are working at their best, these areas are the rightful domain of the film director – and the fashion designer.

The worlds of film and fashion are drawing closer together. Much has been made of the brands behind the costumes in recent blockbusters. Prada collaborated with costume designer Catherine Martin on The Great Gatsby (2013), and in the same year, Swarovski Entertainment, the division of the jewellery brand set up to work solely on movies, co-produced the latest screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

These collaborations smelled strongly of commerce – Prada beckoned film fans into their shops, displaying Gatsby costumes in-store, and Swarovski sold a ‘Romeo and Juliet collection’ of jewellery inspired by the film. But to call fashion’s involvement in film mere product placement would be missing the point. As co-producer, Swarovski invested more than money, reserving the right to weigh in on creative aspects, from costume to casting.

What motivates fashion brands and figures to venture into film? There is the fashion film, that slither of cinema that a brand makes to promote its products or sell its ‘brand story’. There is the fashion show, now swollen from a practical showcase of clothing into a spectacle as dramatic and theatrical as Broadway. Can the designer’s appetite for performance not be sated within the fashion industry? What can film still offer that fashion cannot?

Publicity. Publicity, on a massive scale, beyond billboards and pull-out ads in Vogue. The opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – little over a minute long, and shot largely from behind the character – made Audrey Hepburn a global style superstar, and Hubert de Givenchy’s ‘little black dress’ arguably the most enduring trend of the century. Five years earlier, And God Created Woman (1956), did the same for Brigitte Bardot. Styled as an indelicate temptress by Pierre Balmain, Bardot rips her green skirt to the waist and dances provocatively to a room full of men. This one scene led to the film being condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and cemented Bardot’s position as the decade’s sex symbol. All publicity is good publicity, as Balmain well knew.

Costumes have the capacity to cement and preserve the iconic reputation of a film, long after its release. Take Dorothy’s ruby slippers. These iconic shoes have played as significant a part in the posterity of the film as they did in the story of The Wizard of Oz.

The snippets of trivia surrounding these shoes keep the magic of the old movie alive. In L Frank Baum’s original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wears silver shoes – the film’s creators changed them to red to take advantage of new Technicolour film technology.

Archeologically, these slippers are a little snapshot of the film industry in 1939 – both the symbol of an optimistic creative industry, head over heels with its new technology, and the last light-footed step before the world left Dorothy-esque naivety behind, and war made the idea of stitching 2300 burgundy sequins to a single shoe an unthinkable excess.

First and foremost, costume is a story telling device. It pinpoints a movie’s historical setting(s), as in Orlando or American Psycho’s take-down of the 1980s. It locates a film geographically, be it in “a galaxy far, far away” or Paris, Texas. It hammers home a film’s key themes – think Erin Brockovich doing feminist class-warfare in a floral bodice – and is an anthropological tool. A clearly curated outfit can brand characters as belonging to a certain type or subculture – for example, the ‘up to no good’ genre o, leather jacket clad leading men; cue Johnny Depp in Crybaby and John Travolta in Grease.

Most important is what a costume can tell us about a character. The feature film’s time frame of about two hours isn’t long to convey the complexity of a character to the viewer or document years of a life, and costumes are a useful shortcut.
They can sum up a character in a split second. When, in Blue is the Warmest Colour, we first meet Emma, one look at Lea Seydoux’s blue hair and punky denim waistcoat and you know the kind of woman you’re dealing with – edgy, artistic, and unafraid. In Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean’s character is as hot-headed and red-blooded as his scarlet windbreaker suggests.

Many familiar film tropes play out through costume, number one being the ‘ugly duckling’ plot trajectory. Girl (or occasionally, boy) is a little goofy, self-conscious, and invisible to the opposite sex. Then come the clothes – makeover scenes, voices from cars demanding “Get in loser, we’re going shopping”, et voila – the character is made significant by their clothing, and a sartorially sparked happy ending ensues. It’s Alison in The Breakfast Club, whose wardrobe shifts from black to pink, or Sandy in Grease, who goes from pink to black. It’s Clueless, Mean Girls, and My Fair Lady.

The research and thought that goes in to costuming a film is admirable. 12 Years A Slave (2013), the true tale of a free man sold into slavery, earned 82-year-old costume director Patricia Norris her sixth Oscar Nomination. Norris based slave characters’ costumes on fashions 15 years prior to 1841 when the film is set, to reflect that they would have worn hand-me-downs from plantation owners. The costume team ‘distressed’ garments according to the number of years each character had been enslaved, dirtying the costumes with soil from the plantation settings, to match the costume to its location.

The effort behind these costumes is commendable, but not unusual. In Blue Jasmine (2013), Cate Blanchett’s key look as the unravelling socialite is a boucle Chanel jacket. Clearly part of a suit, costume designer Suzy Benzinger intentionally omitted the skirt, imagining that in the character’s rush to flee her past, she forgot it in a hurry to pack. And while an audience member might never know, in Dallas Buyers Club, each garment worn by Jared Leto’s character Rayon was individually sourced from places that costume designers Kurt and Bart believed the character would shop, his dresses found in thrift stores, and his size 12 heels from a yard sale.

The bottom line here is believability. The costume is something of an unsung hero. If a costume goes unnoticed by the audience, it is likely because it’s doing its job well. Only when a character looks authentic, can we believe they are real – costume elects whether or not the audience believes in a character, their story, and thus, the film itself.


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