Editor’s note: Your three Frock Flickers weren’t able to get to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s (FIDM) annual exhibit of movie costumes, so we called in our Southern California ringer, Athene! FIDM puts on this exhibit every year, and they always include costumes from the movies that are nominated for Best Costume Design Oscars. Many thanks to Athene for sending us this detailed report on the exhibition! (If you’re interested, Kendra reviewed FIDM’s 2015 TV costume exhibit.)
Facts, Not Facts, And Film Costumes
Review of the 24th Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design
Academy Awards season always inspires me to think about theatrical costuming in a more complex manner than my usual “thumbs up, thumbs down” approach. I tend to like what I like and try not to hate the things that don’t actually speak to me. But this year, especially, I’ve found myself wandering down many a deep rabbit hole ruminating on 2015’s slate of nominated films, their relationship to the very nature of costuming and my expectations (as a surrogate for the wider community of costume enthusiasts and reenactors globally) versus the requirements of cinematic storytelling and the places, if any, the twain can meet.
“Films are not facts.” This is the statement that greets visitors to the 24th annual FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles) “Art of Motion Picture Costume Design” exhibition. It’s unprecedented – I’ve never seen such a disclaimer at the exhibition in the 20-odd years I’ve been attending, but there it is, posted right on the gallery wall. I guess this means that this topic is now “a thing.” It continues:
“Films can be based on history, but they are not historical records.” And: “Generally this means blending historical accuracy with today’s norms…” Not to mention: “Costume designers take artistic license and develop their own costuming style, which they bring on set.”
What this tells me, in no uncertain terms, is that film costumers are finding some difficulty navigating the waters that actors and actresses have been swimming in for generations when they take on beloved roles in full view of fans. Until the explosion of social media, most costumers have toiled anonymously, or if not anonymously, at least shielded from the opinions of audiences who are the final consumers of their work.
Not anymore. The absolute voraciousness of the internet and the staggering amount of information that is required to keep it running 24-7 means that everything and everyone is potential content. Everything is important (with a small “i”) and everything is marketable. Costumers now find themselves part of the overall promotion of the films that employ them in ways that could never have been imagined just 20 years ago. Their creative processes, research (or lack thereof), choices, accommodations, and even their art itself is discussed, dissected, and critiqued (sometimes pretty harshly), by a wide and ever widening set of enthusiasts and fandoms. Not only that, but they themselves are forced to be out front, putting a face on their work, and directly engaging with people who have opinions. Lots of opinions.
And I bet most of them got into costuming because they wanted to make great costumes.
The eternal war between life and art has opened up battle lines in the world of film costuming; except that it’s not really a war. I think it is really more a skirmish, a series of growing pains as we all learn more about each other and what we can — and should — expect from both sides of the divide. For costumers, more openness and sharing of creative processes (as difficult as some might find it) will go a long way in fostering understanding and goodwill. We costume enthusiasts are your biggest supporters and cheerleaders. We appreciate nuances and vigorous dedication to quality; we love creativity and revel in clothing art for art’s sake. We are the 2% who remember your name and your work when the other 98% see only the whole. In short, we are your people.
And in return, I, for one, as a card-carrying member of the costuming enthusiast audience, vote to try to take a step back, cut costumers some slack, and actively look to find the artistry in as many pieces as I can, even when I Really Just Don’t Get It. I can’t promise to manage that all the time, but I have decided to make a serious effort. To paraphrase the late, great comedian George Carlin: I used to be a hard-assed authenticist, but now I’m a moderate; you know, you grow.
Take, for example, the surprise Oscar win for Best Costuming by Jenny Beaven for Mad Max: Fury Road. While it certainly wasn’t the horse I was rooting for (Team Cinderella all the way!), I was surprised that the victory for this celebration of dystopian cast-off couture didn’t send me into a towering rage or toss me into the depths of dress-up despair. In fact, I sort of understood it, which, for a dyed-in-the-silk historical costumer, with no outside costuming interests (sci-fi, fantasy, cosplay), came as something of a shock. Beavan’s vision was total and complete and felt authentic within the confines of its world – and was also gloriously dramatic, consistently clever, and delightfully surprising. It is, in a sense, what all successful movie costuming should be.
So, with this in mind, I decided to toss my various (and extensive) prejudices, likes, and dislikes out the window, and approach the 2015 Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition with fresh eyes. (I think I succeeded [sort of] – you tell me.)
This year’s event included displays from all five nominees (Cinderella, The Revenant, Carol, The Danish Girl, and Mad Max: Fury Road), plus an additional 18 selections, including the criminally overlooked Crimson Peak (a definite highlight), Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and last year’s Oscar winner The Grand Budapest Hotel (see a complete list at the bottom of this post).
A Few Gallery One Highlights
NOTE: The observations and opinions that follow are mine, and not necessarily those of the Frock Flick management.
I am not really a Disney person, so color me completely surprised at how much I adored this movie and its flawless costuming by Sandy Powell. The design falls squarely into the “fantasy” genre, but like everything Sandy Powell does, it is fresh, intelligent, and always surprising and delightful.
Let’s start with Cinderella’s ballgown, shall we?
To quote Powell: “It was 217 meters of fabric and four miles of thread just in the hem,” not to mention 10,000 Swarovski crystals. A couture dress, from start to finish, and it shows. It’s hard to grasp the real scale and shine of all that as it is displayed, because while it is a lovely dress on the mannequin, the real beauty, volume, and sparkle is best shown when the dress – and Cinderella – move. I thought it was positively breathtaking in the movie in every single frame.
According to Powell, the top layer is made of silk crepe, and the under layers are made of yumissima – has anyone heard of this fabric? – which is synthetic, ultra-fine, super-expensive, and moves “like smoke.” It certainly looks extraordinarily fine up close, although, again, it is not shown to its best effect. I wished that there was some way to move the fabric, even something as simple as the mannequin being placed on a turntable. The lighting in the exhibition doesn’t do the gown any favors, either. It looks a little washed out; still a gorgeous, gorgeous gown, though.
Lady Tremaine’s green and black ensemble: I want this gown. With that hat. I loved all of Lady Tremaine’s costumes in the movie, and Cate Blanchett looks completely dangerous and completely smashing in them, because Cate Blanchett is a costume goddess.
Powell based her Lady Tremaine designs “on people like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford in the 1940s as if they were doing a 19th-century period piece and getting it all a little bit wrong. I wanted her colors to be strong, and I wanted always there to be an element of black, so she’s always wearing some black.”
This quote encapsulates exactly what Lady Tremaine’s overall look is – and perfectly frames and enhances the portrayal of the story’s villainess: A dangerous, Film Noir femme fatale.
The Stepsisters’ floral dresses were a revelation: These bright pink and yellow dresses have a floral design that is vaguely 18th century (fantasy meets the ‘40s, again) with larger repeats on the skirts that are given additional “oomph” by the hand-overpainting on the blossoms. It looks a bit like puff paint, although I was admonished to step back when I tried to lean in for a better look. In any case, you can see how that detail keeps the print sharp and precise on camera, rather than turning it into soft-bordered mush. The sisters are always dressed in twin gowns in different bright colorways – a wonderful visual clue on their aggressive double-teaming of the kind and gentle pastel-wearing Cinderella.
All these dresses use a lot of corsetry, although not Victorian in style at all. The lines are in keeping with Powell’s 1940s elements; a more “natural” shape, but streamlined and perfected.
You can read more about Cinderella’s ballgown in this LA Times article.
Did Kate Hawley piss someone off and not know it? Because there is no other possible reason that I can see that Crimson Peak costumes were not nominated for Best Costume. These lush, decadent pieces are positively glorious; very gothic and very “grand Guignol.” Set in the late 19th century, the costumes are divided sharply between a sort of generic 1880s look (the past) and the 1890s mashup (today) of the story. The design lines and proportions on all the dresses are by and large pretty good, but what Hawley does with those silhouettes is a true testament to a winning combination of history and design.
Hawley has said that Crimson Peak director Guillermo del Toro likes to color-code his films, and she has incorporated that messaging into her designs quite literally. Dangerous Lucille’s gowns are dark: black, deep emerald, and yes, crimson.
Oh, man… the crimson dress… Darker than blood, and bustled, like all of Lucille’s gowns, the star of the gown is the train that goes for miles and fans out gorgeously. So impractical, but who cares! I noticed two things, in particular, about the train, that I thought were so interesting: 1) The pleats are not the sharp, even pleats found in authentic trained skirts. Instead they are uneven – more “broomsticked” or “faux-tuny.” This uneven surface makes the silk catch the light randomly, giving it a liveliness and shine, even without metallics or crystals. 2) The hem is raw and unfinished. It’s obviously been cut with a very sharp rotor cutter, and the fabric weave is tight enough so that there is very little visible fraying, but what it does is free the pleating to reach its maximum spread. So. Neat.
Lucille’s deep emerald gown with a similar treatment on its train, which is a bit shorter, has some wonderful dark gray and black velvet appliques, velvet fruit and floral trim, weighty without being crushing, that adds so much depth and complexity to the gown that it is almost visually overwhelming.
Edith’s gowns, with the balloon sleeves and belled skirts characteristic of the 1890s, make a startling, yet still complementary counterpoint to Lucille’s dark, menacing (mad sexy) gowns. Hawley chose creams and golds for Edith’s costumes, because she wanted her to look like “a canary in a coal mine.” Three of Edith’s gowns are on display, but the standout is really the dress with the Art Nouveau appliqued sleeves, and THAT BELT. In the story, the buckle is a carving of Edith’s dead mother’s hands, and the belt was woven from her hair.
What I did know: The clasped-hands buckle was sized up and based on pieces of ivory mourning jewelry of similar design. What I didn’t know: The belt was real hair, braided using Victorian techniques. Umm, ick? It is a very beautiful, very creepy, accessory. Brilliant!
You can read a fun interview with Kate Hawley about the costumes for Crimson Peak at Jezebel.
- Bathsheba’s striped day dress from Far From the Madding Crowd. I’ve always hated Far from the Madding Crowd and the story’s annoying heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Designer Janet Patterson gave her a striped walking dress that is fantastic – the fitting on the bodice that makes spectacular use of the striping is particularly impressive. Bathsheba doesn’t deserve it.
- You know that The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue is no good because she is wearing a 1970s leather coat that she stole off of Ali McGraw. She also apparently stole Julie Christie’s fur hat from Dr. Zhivago. Or costumer Courtney Hoffman did. Just another reason to mind the eighth commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
- I was very impressed by the aging and distressing on The Revenant costumes. The textile artists who did that work are masters.
- The men’s suits from Victor Frankenstein are mad, plaid, and fabulous. Romantic-era cut, nipped waist. Monstrously good.
A Few Gallery Two Highlights
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’m not a science fiction or fantasy costumer, so I admit to having no real frame of reference here, but I was completely taken by two of costumes on display from Star Wars that I didn’t really pay attention to when I saw the film: Rey’s scavenger outfit and Kylo Ren’s hooded gown by designer Michael Kaplan.
Rey’s costume is heavily influenced by classic images of desert nomads. Pick any Fifty. (Duh, right?) But when you get up close to the costume, you can see the elaborate and quite lovely draping that provides a lot of depth and movement to the pieces without a lot of bulk. It’s an odd combination of delicate and practical, as if Madame Gres decided to design for intergalactic desert rats.
Similarly, Kylo Ren’s robings are much more intricate with far more detail than I noticed in the movie. First, while it is definitely a deep black, it has a lot of life, thanks to a gorgeous weave with a subtle use of metallic thread. It’s also very weighty, which makes it fall gloriously. The sleeves are built with a series of pleats that run from shoulder to wrist – closely fitted, reminiscent of rerebraces of Medieval armor. Can you say Dark Knight?
And while I appreciate the craftsmanship of the Kylo Ren’s mask, I wish it didn’t remind me so much of a 1950 Chrysler front end grill, with an attached feedbag. (I am aware that this is a failing on my part.) Still, I liked the way the Kylo costume both referenced and elevated the previous Darth Vader costume design, which I know was the intent, but the Kylo iteration also managed to look more like real “clothing” to me than the Vader rig ever did. The costume’s obvious homage to Vader seemed in perfect keeping with the character of Kylo’s obsession, and provided continuity to (what I think is going to be) an overall component of the overarching story arc.
Might there be hope for me yet?
Carol is, in my opinion, the absolute best of the “dressed” costume movies of 2015. Sandy Powell (who also did Cinderella) is certainly one of the top costumers of our time, but honestly, how can you go wrong with high-end 1952 fashions. Needless to say, Powell knocks this out of the park (New York’s Central Park, to be specific) dressing, once again, Queen Cate Blanchett.
Like Cinderella’s blue gown, the four outfits from Carol that are on display at FIDM don’t show as impressively on mannequins, but you can still get a look at the amazing structure and workmanship (couture techniques again) and the impeccable fit on Blanchett’s costumes, as well as those built for Rooney Mara.
I was particularly interested in Carol’s gray suit with the asymmetrically draped coral scarf. They just don’t make great suits like that anymore. (Unless “they” are Sandy Powell, of course.) I also really liked Therese’s multi-color knit hat. I’m normally not a big fan of knit hats, but this one is subtle and sophisticated while still using a lot of color. Apparently Powell made all the hats and scarves, which would explain why they are perfectly proportioned and designed for each actress.
I’m also a sucker for plaid, which Powell uses to contrast Therese’s naiveté with Carol’s worldliness, as illustrated by the solid colors she wears. And what colors! Coral and taupes, jades and blues. I haven’t seen such an appealing color palette in a movie since Chocolat.
Bonus: Whoa, is Cate Blanchett tall. Whoa, is Rooney Mara tiny. (That surprised me because Mara always looks tall to me.)
You can read more about how Powell made “Carol’s” stunning looks at fastcocreate.com.
Mad Max: Fury Road
If your only exposure to Mad Max: Fury Road’s costuming were the three outfits on display at FIDM, you might find yourself scratching your head about why Jenny Beavan took home the Oscar for Best Costuming. Singularly, each of them are multi-layered and interesting (okay, two: Furiosa’s and Max’s. I wasn’t all that keen on the “wives’” costumes), but the real triumph of her work is the impact of the overall look, creativity, and consistency, applied to the hundreds of extras across the entire production.
But back to the display: How is it that Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa) can have a shaved head that has been rubbed with charcoal, and wear rags, and still look like a completely bad-ass supermodel? To be fair, though, she doesn’t exactly wear rags. What she wears are magnificently distressed (thanks again, textile artists, the unsung heroes of the “dystopian future” movie!) and perfectly tailored “rags,” that look great for the character, great for the movie, and great on her. Jenny Beavan, I want you to design my complete post-apocalyptic wardrobe.
For example, that lightly shirred, U-necked T-shirt. I want it. I want it in every color to wear with jeans. Or that AWESOME multiple belt treatment and flaming skull ornament worn over a dark corset (great for back support driving long-hauls over the desert. Dystopian fashion meets function!) with close-fitting jodhpur seamed-trousers and finished with a pair of buckle-topped riding boots.
Tom Hardy’s costume is similarly well designed, well-thought-out and perfectly distressed: Tight leather pants (which are a gift, I tell you. Thanks, Jenny!); a shoulder piece referencing either A) football shoulder pads or B) Medieval paldrons; and a leather jacket that would make Johnny Strabler weep. What I really liked, though, was the weird face mask Max wears, constructed out of what looked like a three-pronged garden trowel. I thought it was particularly clever in that it looked like something that Max might have cobbled together himself. Unlike Imperator Furiosa’s prosthetic arm, which was created using a 3D-printer and is a marvel of gears and pulleys and struts, with a giant claw at the end. And a thumb. Just another example of the little details that make for the overall success of the look and feel of the movie.
I looked for an interview with Jenny Beavan about how she went about creating the looks for Mad Max, but all I could find were stories about what she wore to the Oscars and how no one applauded. Personally, I wish she would have worn something else (it was a semi-formal affair, after all), but she can wear what she wants and be who she is and that is no reason for people to deny her a triumph by being rude. Especially you, Alejandro Iñárritu. I’m calling you out.
- The costumes from Brooklyn are every bit as authentic and pretty as they look on the screen, especially the border-print skirt and green sweater that the character of Eilis wears several times. I thought that was a very lovely and authentic touch, since average people, especially at that time and place, had limited closets. It was completely shopped, but that is an art in and of itself. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it in me to discern the difference between a 1951 dirndl skirt and one from 1955, which is no small thing when costuming a story set in 1951-52.
- The Danish Girl: One of the dresses on display was designed for Eddie Redmayne’s character of the male artist Einar Wegener as he began his transition into his female true self, Lili Elbe. It’s a good example of how designer Paco Delgado, in feminizing Einar’s male shape, opted against padding and relied, instead, on draping, fit, and volume. I really wanted to see Einar’s linen sack suit, which he adopts early in his transition when he is still living primarily as a man, which was not on display, but that I thought was much more successful at the male-female combination. You can see it here.
- Trumbo: Another really great-looking “dressed” movie, which is spot-on for its McCarthy-era story. Can I just say, “Hedda Harper’s hats.” The historical costumer in me loved it.
- I am a sucker for Savile Row tailoring and slim British-cut suits, like those from Kingsman.
- Straight Outta Compton: Wow, we wore some ugly clothes in the 1980s.
- Pitch Perfect 2: Wow, we wear some ugly clothes now.
The exhibition closed April 30, 2016, but there are a numerous photos of the exhibition available online. Also available here. I would also encourage you to visit the complete list of costumed movies included this exhibition below, for more information.
Complete List of Movies Included in Exhibition
* Academy Award Nominee for Best Costume Design
** Academy Award Winner
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Hateful Eight
The Revenant *
The Grand Budapest Hotel ** (2014)
Jem and the Holograms
Kingsman: The Secret Service
The Longest Ride
Mary Claire Hannan
Mad Max: Fury Road **
Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation
Pitch Perfect 2
Salvador Perez, Jr.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton