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Wednesday 2 November 2011

Movie costumes I have loved: a fan's introduction to costume design.

When rating movie wardrobes, I deduct points for both period dramas and musicals. Allow me to direct your attention to the list of Academy Awards for Best Costume Design. In the past fifteen years, the only winners that weren't period dramas or musicals were Lord Of The Rings and Alice In Wonderland, both fantasies featuring very ostentatious costuming (not that I begrude LOTR its win, which was thoroughly deserved). Is this because all the designers working on films with a contemporary (or futuristic) setting were incompetent? I doubt it. It's similar to the often-bemoaned problem of hammy "Oscar bait" performances -- At this point, putting Keira Knightley or Helena Bonham Carter in a corset and crinoline is the costuming equivalent of getting Philip Seymour Hoffman to play a mentally-ill Nazi.
A totes realistic portrayal of 18th century womanhood.
As far as I can tell, the main points taken into consideration when judging movie costumes are these:

1. Authenticity. This mostly concerns period dramas, but since they make up the vast majority of costume award nominations (not that awards are the be-all and end-all of cinema, but still.) it's probably the most important point. A lot of fuss is made over historically accurate costuming, which I'd immediately dismiss as pointless. First of all, you can't make a truly historically-accurate costume for anything set before, oh, 1850 or so, for these reasons:
  • Lack of availability of detailed/accurate documentation of day-to-day clothing. Only the rich had portraits, and those would be idealised. There is no such thing as a "casual" painting, and until you reach the age of photography, it's difficult to find pictures of what most people (ie, poor people) would look like in real life.
  • Methods of clothing production are completely different now than they were even 100 years ago, and many of the materials used are now unavailable or stupidly inconvenient to produce. And what's the point in going to the effort of hand-squeezing dye to make your own cloth? Nobody watching the film is going to know or care. No one except fashion historians, who probably enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean as much as the next person, and therefore don't give a crap. 
  • Beauty standards change so drastically that modern actors aren't even the same shape as people even 50 years ago, never mind 500, making "historical authenticity" a moot point in the first place. Try looking at a portrait of a 18th century "beauty" some time. They look weird as shit. Diet was completely different, people had babies at 14, every second person had smallpox or syphilis, all the aristocrats wore Lady Gaga wigs and bathed like once a month... it wasn't pretty. Good luck getting Gwyneth Paltrow to do that for the next kings-and-crinolines epic.
Painting of Queen Victoria's coronation. Obviously, there are no photos.
Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria.

A lot of effort went into making this costume as authentic as possible, including handling the original gown in the archive at Kensington palace. In an interview about the process of making this gown, Sally Powell (a nine times nominee and three time winner -- all for historical dramas -- of costume design Academy Awards) describes perfectly the archetypal historical drama costume process:

"...made completely from scratch with us creating the fabric first. Having seen the original in the archive, it was a challenge to recreate this. We did this by buying a plain fabric with a metallic thread in it, then dying it to the right shade of gold, then all the intricate embroidery was recreated by printing and hand painting."

That's bloody amazing. You're impressed, aren't you? I'm impressed. All that work! And you can't deny that the gown looks fantastic. It's a pity they didn't go to the trouble of making the rest of the movie just as authentic -- including rotten teeth, for example (an aspect of "history" often mysteriously ignored by filmmakers), or an actress who, you know, looked anything like Queen Victoria. Why is it that people value historical accuracy in costuming so much higher than in any other aspect of a film? Take a look at the wikipedia entry for "historical accuracy in Gladiator" some time. That movie won an Oscar for best costume design as well.

2. Detail/work. A lot of emphasis always seems to be put on the "Keira Knightley in a crinoline" costumes and the horde of peons who were employed for ten years to sew on each individual seed-pearl. Why? Perhaps this is sacriligious to say, but... does that really matter? Does it improve the experience of watching the film? Would anyone care if each seed pearl was in fact hot-glue-gunned on by an intern? Probably not. They're too busy discreetly wiping away a tear as Keira spurns the latest of her interchangeable onscreen love-interests. In a way, I can more easily understand the vast numbers of people employed to make "realistic" costumes for Lord Of The Rings (most famously the artisans who wore off their fingerprints while making chain-mail by hand) because the core audience for those films were nerds, ie the kind of people who are detail-oriented and obsessive enough to appreciate it. The core audience of films like The Duchess and The Young Victoria? Probably not all that nerdy.
You look fantastic, Elrond.
In Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the costumes were made on a tiny budget (including one dress made from flip-flops, pictured above) by a handful of people, and yet were far more fitting and individual to the characters and setting than the "accurate" yet personality-free costumes found in many historical dramas. The costumes of Priscilla were truly original and imaginative, although I admit they do fit into my final category of Oscar nomination staples...

3. Sparkles! There's something about people dancing around in shiny outfits that taps straight into the animal hindbrain and makes it go, "Yay!"
Omigod I look AMAZING! Sparkles!!
This is the reason why musicals are the other main recipient of comments to the effect of  "wow, those costumes were brilliant!" Well, yes, they probably were, because a large amount of time and money went into them, but what you really meant was, "wow, those costumes are really noticeable!" With musicals, you can't help but notice that people are wearing a costume, which in any other type of film is the exact opposite of what you should be going for. In most other films, consciously noting the costumes probably means that you've been distracted from the actual content. The fourth wall has been breached.

The one thing I think actually matters.

Having read the last few paragraphs, you probably think I have no respect for the hard work and talent of costume designers. Not true! In fact, I am in awe of a great many historical films for precisely the same reason most people are: the amount of effort that's been put into their historical authenticity. (Also, the quantity of pretty sparkles.) However, I think there's one fundamental element of costume design that is rarely taken into account not only by judges during awards season but by most casual viewers, and that is characterisation.

The most important thing about any costume is its fidelity to the character who is wearing it. You can have years of experience in medieval embroidery under your belt but still turn out a totally inappropriate set of costumes for a King Arthur movie if you haven't thought about the characters. Is this person messy or neat? Do they even care about their appearance? (A possibility that clothing/appearance-obsessed people may well forget, on occasion.) Is it practical or realistic to have them wear a different outfit in every scene?

In films set in the last 30 years, this is more important than ever because of the wider range of clothing available to everyone. In a film like The Young Victoria everyone's clothes would be slightly different because they'd all be sewn and fitted by hand but they would be almost identical in style because to the unschooled eye, fashions were far more uniform until the 20th century. However, a similar film about the events surrounding Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding would require just as much costuming but a far wider range of styles. The Oscar would probably go to the one set 150 years in the past, though, because you'd notice the costumes

So, next time you're watching a movie set in 1995, or 2005, or the amorphous "present day" of most relationship dramas and action movies, take a look at what everyone's wearing. And see if it's more or less authentic in relation to the characters' personalities than the costumes worn in a film set a century earlier.


  1. Excellent post. Though I maintain that Chicago defies your "musical" criteria, especially the dance costumes.

    I'd love to see more examples in a future post about how costumes illustrate character! (and that eternal sunshine photo is perfect. But her look actually serves a functional purpose in the movie. You can identify the time period by the color of her hair :))

  2. I haven't watched Chicago in years, so I can't really comment with much details on that one. :// There is a LOT of sparkle factor going on as well, though, as with any adaptation of a glitzy stage-show.

    My next post is going to be about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I think! Originally this post was going to be about that, but then I realised my introduction was too long so I might as well make one single post as an intro/starting point for any future costume design review posts.

  3. Bravo!

    Of course I agree that the most important thing about costumes is their capacity to inform the audience about characterisation and you explain it beautifully.

    You are a scholar and a gentlewoman!

  4. I cannot agree with this more. It irritates me that year after year the nominations go to the best construction, not the best design, and that somehow flash = good design. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly a number of designers who have deserved their awards, but there are so many who have been completely ignored because of obvious favouritism for styles/periods (or just plain ignorance).

  5. next up: tinker tailor soldier spy. SUBTLE CHARACTERISATION WITHIN COSTUMES: a thing that i like.

    thank you thank you! :)

  6. one thing that rather irritated me last awards season was that Inception didn't even get a nomination. i guess so few people really pay attention to the costume design oscar nominations that it's easy enough for the judges to be lazy about it? i'm not entirely clear on how the voting system works, to be honest -- whether it's only costume designers who vote on it, or the entire academy of filmmakers...?

  7. but the sparkles only occur when the song is in roxie's mind? actually it's really interesting how the clothes depict power relationships in the movie. (remember, chicago's the closest thing we've got to a diegetic musical)

  8. Cool! I haven't seen TTSS yet but I look forward to reading about it.

  9. Also! I have been thinking about picspamming Bright Star for a while but now I'm definitely going to because it's one of the few period films where the costumes actually do reflect characterisation.

  10. Honestly I never thought that deeply about costuming until reading the incredibly detailed essays about Inception. Thank you, fandom!

    And I guess some people just like the historical geekery. My sister studied the history of costume design and now she makes historically-inspired Viking outfits full of detailed hand embroidery for fun.

  11. fandom is so educational! everyone brings their interests to their latest fixation. the amount everyone learnt about the military industrial complex thanks to stargate, LOL.

    i like historical geekery! i'm one of those people who often gets aggravated by minor historical inaccuracies in hollywood movies. and usually i love all those amazing, intricate costumes! for example, they were a major highlight of the Three Musketeers movie -- where fashion is actually kind of a topic for a couple of the characters, although obviously the entire thing is ridiculous and generally kind of a shitty movie. but my point is that historical drama costumes aren't the be-all and end-all of costume design. history of costume design sounds like such a cool field though! i'd love that shit.

  12. I'm always bothered by the actors' nice teeth in historical movies.

  13. i want to make an amazing/awful macro tumblr that does nothing but take screencaps from popular historical movies and defaces them with things like YOU SMELL TERRIBLE and THIS CHARACTER HAS SYPHILIS and TOOTHBRUSHES HADN'T BEEN INVENTED YET.

  14. Can't agree more with Inception. Modern costume at its best. The characters were so well defined by their clothing, which is saying something when most of the cast is a number of similarly built men in suits.

    If I recall correctly it's a board of people within the field that nominate the films, which makes the lack of modern films surprising. I'm quite sure this is how it's done for the animated features (a few friends in animation have mentioned this) but I'm not sure if it's the same for other fields.

  15. Just wanted to say that I completely agree with you on the whole unfairness of the bias towards historical films for costume awards, as unwieldy as that statement is. I love a historical romp as much as the next Medievalist, but it does seem that those responsible for dishing out the nods for costume designing seem to be a bit fixated on them. I've always thought that this was because historical films are just more obviously different from real life. Most people, when walking down the street or sitting on the train won't encounter someone in a bustle or rocking a high hat and arrow collar, or at least I don't. So, in the same way that sparkly musical costumes stand out against the humdrum unbesequined office smart or trackie bottoms of us normos, so do French Gables. Doesn’t mean they should; surely a costume should never exist on its own, but rather should be a facet of the character whose bits it’s obscuring. I don’t know, it’s just always seemed to me that people like the costumes in these films because they see the costumes in these films. That isn’t to say that they aren’t good, just that it seems a bit unfair to assume that other costume designers of films set in modern times aren’t as good, simply because nobody noticed they were there.

    And I think people also get brownie points by bandying around the term ‘historically accurate’, which as you pointed out, it a bit of a misnomer. I have myriad and involved fantasies of seeing an historically accurate film, but it’ll probably always be a thwarted desire, feel my pain. And in the end, does it really matter? I notice when stuff is wrong because I have spent a ruinous amount in student loans studying this stuff. Most people haven’t, so why should they care if the costumes aren’t quite right. How would they even know? If they’ve never seen wood cuts or illuminations in texts, most people’s frame of reference for historical costumes are other historical films. Did Natalie Portman look right in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’? Well, she wore the same sort of stuff as Cate Blanchett in ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Years’ so for most people, that’s about right. I may weep quietly about this great unjustice, but most people don’t care. It’s all a bit self-perpetuating, really.

    So, yeah, more Oscars and BAFTAs for the modern stuff because just as much time and effort goes into designing it. I mean, the designers don’t just pop down the High Street and grab the nearest jeans, so the awards committees should probably stop treating them like they do.

  16. one of the other things that rather annoys me about some historical dramas is the quantity of costume changes given to the characters. this IS an accuracy issue, though. unless you're talking about a very rich character (which, admittedly, is often the case) then people really wouldn't have that many clothes. this is something i've enjoyed in game of thrones because people really DON'T change that often, if at all, unless they're royalty. you see this sort of thing more in later-historical tv/movies than in stuff set in the swords-and-crinolines era, though, but it's still the case that until mass-production was available then most poor people were making their own clothes and/or buying low-quality clothes that probably wouldn't fit very well. nowadays you can go out and buy an acceptable smart-casual outfit quite cheaply, but in the '50s that REALLY wasn't an option, and it just gets worse the more you go back in time, thanks to the comparitve complexity of clothing and the lack of technology available to most people.

    tl;dr version: people only like historical accuracy when it's pretty and convenient.

  17. Exactly, it is an accuracy issue. Because only the rich could do it, constant costume changes confuse the status of the character. Are they rich enough to have all these clothes, I thought they were the gentry?

    Colours and fabrics also grate on my nerves a bit. I mean, OK, so it's alright to pretend that most sumptury laws didn't exist, even I'd say that was a bit niche, but if that particular die or fabric wasn't invented in the time your work is set, you know your characters shouldn't be wearing it. I understand artistic license, but you can't really have it both ways; you can't claim artistic license but also get awards for historical accuracy.

    I've never seen Game of Thrones, but I'm toying with the idea of starting. Costumes aside, you do seem to like it, so, is it worth getting into? Bearing in mind that after my finals finish, I'm going to have A LOT of time on my hands...

  18. colours and fabrics... well, i'm no expert so sometimes i know this stuff and sometimes i don't, and most of the time it's the case that i'll look at something and know it's wrong without being able to detail why. and re: dye and fabric accuracy, it's inevitably going to be garbage anyway because a lot of fashions from different eras look unspeakably gaudy to modern eyes, or else might not show up on camera. which brings us back to the issue of unless you're able to transport an actor from the 16th century who actually has the right body shape, dietary habits etc, why even BOTHER going to this extent? just don't go on and on in interviews about how you studied weaving techniques and what-have-you when it's clearly irrelevent AND has no actual effect on the quality of the story/film.

    game of thrones -- yes, i'd rec it. i love it now. my experience with it was that the first few episodes, while well-acted and very high in production values, were not very engaging. it wasn't so much that they had too much exposition, because i'm pretty sensitive to that (and GoT really REQUIRES a lot of exposition because there's so much going on all the time), but it took several episodes before i cared about any of the characters so i was just sort of watching it like, "LOL, another beheading," and failing to learn most of the 90000 characters' names. other people seem to find this sacrilegous, but i did skip a whole bunch of "we're moving our army north for this reason" scenes in the first five or so episodes, and now i'm onto season 2 alongside everyone else i'm totally onboard and ALMOST know all the main characters' names. ;DD

    tl;dr version: watch it. the first season is only 10 episodes long anyway, and my experience was that i got really into it around ep 7 (not that the first few eps are bad, just slow). maybe just watch the first few eps with your finger on the fast0forward button, playing the "take a shot every time there's incest or a beheading" drinking game.

  19. Yeah, no expert either, but some of the sumptury laws were just a bit excessive. People were imprisoned for having a neckerchief made of silk that they wore on Sundays. A serious threat to public order as I'm sure we can all agree. Hussy! And they say in C16th was England's Golden Age!

    The hypocrisy does grate. And you know that this is part of the reason that they are being given these awards. One day there will be an historically accurate film that will bomb atrociously at the box office, and yet I will love forever and place it in my heart alongside The Rocky Horror Show, The History Boys and Terminator 2.

    I'll give it a try then. It'll have to wait 'til after my finals, but then I'm there. Have you read the books? But I'm not sure that drinking game is safe, from what I've seen online it's ALL incest and beheading. I might as well just funnel the booze straight in, continuously. And then when I can't see straight, how will I be able to tell how accurate they are?

  20. i've read none of the books and have absolutely no idea what happens in the story, apart from the semi-spoiler that one of the characters survives until the final book. but from what i've seen of the current 14 episodes of the show, it's alllll incest and beheadings.

  21. One of the characters survives? Only one? Is this like Spooks with sandals? Not even medieval Europe was this bloody. Actually, what sort of time frame are they supposedly setting this thing in? I know it isn't a direct lift from anywhere, but is there like a timeframe?

    (If there's only one left, who can they be incesting with? Enquiring minds need to know!)

  22. well, i assume that some of the other characters survive. but the thing i saw about this character implied pretty strongly that they were one of those survivors, whereas right now any of the others are fair game. this show does have a very high body count. also WRT survivors etc, new characters are introduced all the time so it is actually possible that the entire original cast COULD be killed off, i suppose!

    i guess it's sort of pseudo-medieval but most of the story currently focuses on the germanic/northern-europe/british cultures while the desert nomad/mongolian people get less screentime. well, they're supposedly from the mongolian steppes but there's not much evidence of that aside from the fact that they're a nomadic horse culture. there's also some kind of roman/etruscan culture i think but we haven't met them (yet) plus some people overseas who we also... haven't met. i mean, basically it's all white people aside from jason momoa's desert nomads.

  23. You MASSIVE tease! I'm not even watching it and now I want to know which of the characters I have neither seen or hear of survives. See, really bad with surprises. But, for the sake of spoilers, don't say anything. I'll just suffer on through it. (First world problems...)

    My geography's a bit hazy in that area, but how much of the Mongolian Steppes is actually sandy desert? I see there's also dragons. This works strongly in this show's favour. It does have Natalie Dormer thoughan not so good. Swings and roundabouts really.

  24. I love your article, well said. I am a sucker for pretty dresses from centuries past, but modern filsm deserve recognition as well.

  25. Amilla Deverous9 April 2013 at 11:07

    Actually rather a lot of them survive to "A Dance with Dragons". The last book that was written! If you had read the books, you would know that there are a lot of story lines and all of them are EXTREMELY intricate, interwoven and have back stories. There is only case of incest that runs through the book and while there are be-heading's they are and integral part of the story lines. The books should be read, (in order or you'll get confused) and the show has an amazingly vast array of costumes which, like in real life, help to show how the characters are growing up or how the story/plot affects them.

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