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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Capitol Couture in The Hunger Games.

It's a little late for a review of the Hunger Games movie itself, so in summary: I thought it was an excellent adaptation, and the few things I did have a problem with (too much exposition from the Games commentators; too many important and/or traumatising details cut from the book) were understandable for reasons of making the film accessible to a wider audience. I've had a few people ask me if I'm going to write about the costumes, and yes, I'm finally getting round to it, although you may not all agree with the result. For a film adaptation of a book that has so much to say about fashion, vanity, and the immediate visual differences between social classes, the costumes in The Hunger Games could've been a lot better.
I'm not suggesting moment that the Capitol costumes didn't look fantastic. It's the background concept I have a problem with. Effie Trinket, the first person we see from the Capitol, was perfect. Her purpose is to illustrate the huge chasm between Katniss' life in the impoverished District 12, and the thoughtlessly cruel frivolity enjoyed by the people who dwell in the Capitol. Even though Effie has more contact with people from the worker districts than most Capitol citizens do, she still has very little understanding of how they live or the fact that the Capitol is so widely loathed and resented. There's no possibility of any common ground between her and a girl who has to illegally hunt with a bow and arrow in order to save her family from starvation.

Katniss has higher priorities than caring about the way she looks. (One thing I would've appreciated in this film would've been if Katniss had actually had leg hair prior to her Capitol makeover.) She's a very angry person, raging against the Capitol and the way her friends and family are forced to live, but quiet about it because stoicism and practicality are the only way for her to survive. Effie is the polar opposite of this: superficial, thoughtless, and impractical to the degree that she can barely walk in her tight skirts and heels.
Elizabeth Banks and her costume/makeup people created a wonderfully faithful version of this character. Both visually and in terms of her performance, she embodies everything Katniss hates about the Capitol: the frothyness, the frivolity, the conspicious consumption and wastefulness. She also has a very distinctive personal style: the puffy hair, sleeves and accessories, the narrow waists of her jackets and the excessive colour-coordination. Unlike in many futuristic/sci-fi movies where people wear improbably costumes with no thought for budget or practicality, we know that Effie has a team of consultants and makeup artists to help her look that way.
For me, the problem with the Hunger Games' costumes begins once we move past Effie Trinket and into the Capitol itself. Effie is a perfect example both of a character whose costumes fit perfectly with their personality  and lifestyle, and of a character who is image-obsessed to the detriment of everything else. Now, both from descriptions in the novels and the impression we get of the Capital in general, the appearance of other Capitol citizens should run along those lines as well: strong personal styles, coupled with extremely high-impact, high-budget clothes. The problem is that the background characters look too much like Effie Trinket.
When Katniss and Peeta first enter the Capitol they experience severe culture shock, partially thanks to the outlandish appearance of its citizens. In the film, this works fairly well but only because the clothes worn by the extras and secondary characters are so colourful when compared to the muted greys and browns of District 12. However, the fundamental reason why the Capitol citizens look the way they do is because they're part of a society where people are rich, have too much time on their hands, and hugely overvalue personal appearance. Even taking into account the fact that many people are followers rather than trendsetters, the overall effect of the Capitol costumes is the assumption that colour-matching, dyed hair, puffy sleeves and narrow waists are the Capitol equivalent of jeans-and-a-t-shirt. It removes Effie Trinket's impact because it characterises her as just another slavish follower of a universal trend.
Fashion is self-expression. It may be molded by trends and designers, but in a culture where everyone has a huge amount of disposable income to spend on self-augmentation and bespoke clothes, everyone should look far more different from one another than they did here. The girl pictured above could easily be Effie Trinket 20 years ago. The woman in the picture below, with her curled and coloured hair and elaborate fascinator, could be Effie in 20 years time. Excluding the possibility that these women are both Effie Trinket fangirls, we shouldn't be seeing this type of uniformity. Take a look at any busy urban street in real life. Is every person wearing the same fashion trends? No. A hundred years they might have been, but only because clothes were far slower and more difficult to make.
In the Capitol, outrageousness is praised and admired. This isn't a world of high-end couture fans whose style is dictated by Fashion Week; a far better analogy would be the urban tribes of the Harajuku district in Tokyo. The Harajuku kids dressing in Lolita, Visual Kei and Club Kid styles identify with those subcultures and put a lot of time and effort into the way they look, as should the people of the Capitol. The Capitol may be isolated from the outside influences that inspire new social/fashion trends in real-life cities, but the Capitol's constant obsession with public image, stylists and reality TV should outweigh that purely because there would be so many competing designers. But despite the extravagance of what we see in the Capitol scenes, there's very little sense that these people are setting out to express their own individuality.
Several reviews namechecked Lady Gaga because she's the current buzzword for over-the-top dressing, but Capitol fashions only reach the level Gaga maintains for a casual trip to the airport or a baseball game, not the full-on meat dress extravaganza she puts on for major events. In the third Hunger Games book, there's a shop that caters to people who take on animal characteristics, the owner herself having had her body augmented to look like a tiger. This is a weird example even by Capitol standards, but when do we see anything even approaching this in the movie? Where's the extreme plastic surgery? Where are the facial tattoos and metal flesh inlays described in the book? Why are all the women so feminine, and the men dressed in some version of a suit? Where are the goths? Where are the people whose fashion identity is tied up in some other subculture, like medical fetishism, or sportswear, or plant-matter, or faux poverty? Because you know that in a priveleged yet socially ignorant culture like this, there will be people who ape the poorer the Districts by doing something like dressing in stylised rags.
When choosing extras for the background scenes in the Capitol, they might have been better off doing an open casting call for fans wearing what they thought of as Capitol fashions. Or giving a bunch of money to some of the more out-there Etsy designers or Camden Market/Harajuku clothing companies, so as to come up with a more disparate selection of "weird" styles. Hopefully in the later movies we'll see a wider variety of extremes instead of this single overarching theme of brightly-coloured formalwear.

Links

Hunger Games Fashion -- Various behind-the-scenes articles from the Hunger Games movie's costume and makeup team.

Capitol Couture -- Viral marketing site set up before the film's release, showcasing various Capitol fashions and characters.

Grey, by Jon Armstrong -- Like The Hunger Games, this novel takes place in a very priveleged and image-obsessed city, although this time round the protagonist is from the Capitol. It's a great portrayal of extreme subcultures and reality TV/internet fandom, the main character being an obsessive fan of grey suits, intense minimalism, and a "competitive ironer" who is famous for ironing shirts in a particularly sharp manner.

12 comments:

  1. Huh, I think you updated this blog just as I was reading it... anyway, as someone who likes the wacky outfits of Lady Gaga and Nicky Minaj, I too was slightly disappointed that the Capitol costumes weren't as out-there as I'd been led to expect. But I think there are good reasons for that...

    I wonder if having the Capitol people all look broadly similar wasn't a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers. Besides making the costuming process quicker and cheaper, it also helps dehumanise them for the viewer, who sees them as one big crowd of identical 'sheeple' rather than as individuals. That makes it easier for the viewer to hate them. If they saw them instead as a series of individuals, it would be considerably more horrifying, as it would emphasise that these are all real people with their own thoughts and opinions, who nonetheless choose to spend their time watching kids murder each other for their amusement. I can see why the filmmakers wouldn't want to stress that angle.

    Also, I thought the film was plenty traumatic already! If the book included more 'traumatising details', I don't think I'm going to read it...

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  2. Oh, this is a fabulous post. I really enjoyed reading your observations about fashion and self-presentation :)

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  3. I think you've hit on the exact reason I wasn't terribly impressed with the Capitol costume designs.

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  4. seems like these views were shared by quite a few people, yeah.

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  5. Thank you! :)

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  6. you make a good point with regards to the usefullness of background characters really providing background. however, if you take a movie like blade runner, the background characters all look pretty distinct from one another but i don't recall them ever being a distraction. one of the things futuristic/urban-dystopia movies are pretty good at -- even if they're objectively terrible films in every other regard -- is ridiculous costuming, so i felt that what with the pressure to provide some real Capitol Fashions as found in the books, this film should have stood out from other movies of a similar genre. however, it didn't. obviously it'd be pretty time consuming to have evry single person kitted out in something super extreme, but i expect that a lot of the problems surrounding this issue could be sorted out via camerawork.

    one of the things i think they should've cut less from the book is the stylists -- if they'd included maybe just a 2-minute scene with katniss interacting with some really bizarre-looking stylists (with cinna providing a more grounded and "normal"-looking counterpoint) and talking about the reality tv culture/capitol mindset, i think the impact of the games and the games-related publicity stuff would've been greater.

    the books are more gory. for example, a main character loses a leg, and the latter two books have a pretty eye-popping body count. i'm curious to see how they'll manage to keep the sequel movies down to a 12A/PG-13 rating without completely neutering them, because the books get progressively darker as the series goes on. i'd definitely recommend them, though[. the levels of violence in the movie aren't that much less than in the books, to be honest -- it's more just that the violence in the film is often offscreen and all the blood was CGI'ed out, whereas in the books Katniss witnesses and experiences a lot of violent and traumatic events firsthand.

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  7. Just read the trilogy, saw the movie, and read this post- and I completely agree! The Capitol fashion was bland and one-dimensional compared with the variety of outrageous styles described in the book. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that so many of the styles seem to be referencing historical fashion- 1940's fascinators, or Marie Antoinette era make-up, or Victorian leg-of-mutton sleeves and high collars, all mixed together and paired with present day shoes and leggings. Most of the men were dressed as the reserved Cinna was described in the book- looking suspiciously normal in suits and ties. I was hoping to see something so outlandish and dazzling that it would feel alien. Instead I found something so familiar and uniform that it was overlooked without a thought....

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  8. I think they look outstanding but l would like to see a little more of Petta and Katniss

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  9. I just found this blog today (I love it!) so this is pretty late but: In the Hunger Games DVD special features it's actually stated that Effie was a trend setter, and many of the costumes of random capitol women are meant to look like something that was made by a fan/follower of hers. Also notice that a lot of men in the crowd have crazy facial hair designs.

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  10. Really interesting break time read thankyou :)

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  11. They dressed them that way as a satire. Just like in reality many rich people will dress alike so too do people in the Capitol dress similar.

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  12. Hi; Just saw "Hunger Games," and gleaned a similarity between Capitol City fashions, and Munchkins from "Wizard of Oz." As to the plot, compare it to Greek mythology's account of the Theseus/Labyrinth/Minotaur tale. I do not accuse plagiarism, only inspiration, on the writer's part. R.

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