Hollywood Costume

July 27, 2013
A costume worn by Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, 1936
A costume worn by Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, 1936

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a turning point arrives through a change of costume. James Stewart, playing the damaged cop, Scottie, sees a girl who closely resembles the dead woman who haunts his thoughts. That woman, Madeleine, is on Scottie’s conscience and in his heart. In Judy, a shop girl from Kansas, he recognises Madeleine’s double and obsessively tries to resurrect his lost love. The transformation is enacted by swapping Judy’s body-hugging green sweater and kiss curls for Madeleine’s tight grey suit and a hair-do held in a swirl at the back.

At this stage Scottie and the viewer don’t know that Kim Novak’s Judy and Madeleine are the same woman. It is a revelatory moment when the change of outfit restores Madeleine to life.

In this, and many other aspects, Vertigo (1958) is almost the perfect film about film. Hitchcock has dramatised the transformation that takes place in every movie when an actor assumes the personality of a fictional character. One cannot overestimate the role costume plays in this metamorphosis. Indeed, there are many actors who don’t feel they have found their character until the crucial moment of putting on his or her clothes. It is more than a cliché to say that clothing acts as a second skin.

Hollywood Costume at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in Melbourne, is a show that makes one conscious of the central significance of garments in the movies. This may be only too obvious when it comes to period films, but it is equally true for contemporary cinema in which the choice of clothing often passes unnoticed. Unless a costume has a particular role to play in a story it should not attract the average viewer’s attention. Outfits that stand out too prominently tend to overshadow an actor’s performance.

 

Clothes are one of our most fundamental means of communication, conveying instant information about our economic status and personalities. One can tell the difference between an introvert and an extrovert by their approach to fashion and colour. A slovenly dresser may have an equally slovenly attitude to life; while the neat, tight, buttoned-up look suggests an anal retentive.

Yet this mass of signs and signals can be nothing but play-acting, as we dress up for special occasions, following accepted codes. In the movies these signs are gathered together to help create a character. Film is the ultimate collaborative art, and a good costume designer will work closely with the director and the lead actors to ensure that every detail adds something to the story.

Being a costume designer for the movies is a highly creative, skilled occupation that also requires the ability to subjugate one’s ego to the demands of the project. Often designers must have the ingenuity to coax fabulous results from the cheapest materials, as the budget gets tighter.

This exhibition, originally put together for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, boasts 100 costumes by more than 50 designers, including the little black dress forever identified with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Scarlett O’Hara’s famous green gown from Gone with the Wind (1939), as worn by Vivien Leigh; and Marilyn Monroe’s revealing outfit from Some Like it Hot (1959), that tested the patience of the censors.

In the male domain, costumes range from the deceptively simple clothes worn by Robert De Niro, as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976); to Johnny Depp’s extravagant costumes as Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Captain Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).

 

The curator of the show, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, is both an historian of costume and a Hollywood designer in her own right, who has worked on films such as The Blues Brothers (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). This makes her uniquely qualified to undertake such a survey, which manages the balancing act of being both populist and scholarly. The obvious commercial appeal of this exhibition has not prevented Landis from putting together an excellent catalogue, packed with small essays, interviews and memoirs. There have been many so-called blockbuster exhibitions at public art galleries with catalogues that were not half as good.

One of the aims of this show is to recognise the achievements of designers who have never attracted the attention lavished on famous actors and directors. There was Adrian, who dressed stars such as Katharine Hepburn, and designed for iconic movies such as The Wizard of Oz (1939); Travis Banton, who engineered the look of many classic Hollywood films, working with everyone from Mae West to Carmen Miranda, to Marlene Dietrich; Edith Head, known for her collaborations with Hitchcock, including Vertigo; and many contemporary designers who have formed special partnerships with wellknown directors. The list includes Mike Nichols’s designer-of-choice, Ann Roth; Colleen Atwood, who has made a major contribution to the look of Tim Burton’s films; and Mary Zophres, favourite designer for the Coen brothers.

With the exception of Edith Head (1897-1981), who won eight Academy Awards during a career that spanned more than 50 years, few of these names are known outside of film circles. But with the gaps rapidly narrowing between the visual arts, fashion and cinema it’s time we took a closer look at the achievements of the best costume designers.

In a world in which leading art museums vie with each other to host retrospectives by top couturiers, while contemporary exhibitions are filled with audio-visual and performance work, it is becoming futile to try and draw boundaries between these fields. It is hardly more than petty snobbery to put contemporary art on a higher plane than fashion and film. The only significant distinctions are ones of quality, not genre or expense. There are masterpieces made on a shoestring and trash that costs $100 million.

 

The film costume designer has many opportunities to demonstrate his or her creativity, but every manoeuvre is circumscribed by the practical demands of the movie. There is not much scope for self-indulgence unless the director is complicit in the process.

A large part of the designer’s time is spent researching the brief. This may entail extensive historical investigation, including days spent in libraries and museums working out what people wore in Roman times or the Elizabethan era. It may require the designer to track down and interview those with first-hand experience of the subject, or do unusual field-work. As preparation for Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988), Ann Roth stationed herself at the base of the World Trade Centre and watched secretaries getting off the Staten Island ferry. Her important discovery was: “They were very sexy.”

Being constrained by budgets and scripts is probably a better recipe for quality than complete freedom. It’s also a unique challenge for an artist to create something that makes a crucial contribution to a film without causing a distraction. Occasionally the most humdrum items, such as Dorothy’s gingham dress in The Wizard of Oz, can take on an iconic dimension. There are countless variations for sale on the internet.

One of the lessons soon learnt is that movies require flexibility and a degree of exaggeration if the desired impression of a place or time is to be conveyed. Hence, Hollywood’s version of the Court of Versailles or Dickensian London usually sacrifices historical accuracy for style. The gowns that Travis Benton designed for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934) owe more to Art Deco than ancient Egypt, but they produced an effect of regal opulence. An exception to the rule of exaggeration is Behind the Candelabra, where designers had to find inexpensive substitutes for Liberace’s sumptuous outfits, such as a cape made from white Norwegian fox fur with a five-metre train.

 

The increasing use of digital technology has lightened some of the heavy-duty chores of the costume department. James Acheson, who designed outfits for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), reflects that the thousands of extras he had to clothe would now be generated by computer. It is the contention of this exhibition that CGI doesn’t undermine the role of the costume designer, it merely streamlines their workload. A greater threat comes from commercial strategies such as product placement and licencing, which may require all the clothes in a film to be made by a particular label. This considerably reduces the designer’s creative options and makes movies look like advertisements.

There is also a worrisome trend of putting big budget movies in the hands of inexperienced directors whose chief experience lies with TV shows or pop videos. The reliance on special effects and formulaic plots inevitably has an impact on the subtlety and individuality of costume design. Every space suit now seems to come from the same shop, just like every vision of the future seems to be built from sets left over from Blade Runner. It is no coincidence that exceptional designers have always worked with exceptional directors. The greatest costume designer in the world can’t save a second-rate film, although they may give us something to alleviate our suffering.

 

Hollywood Costume, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, April 24 – August 18, 2013

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 27, 2013