What is the role of the costume designer anyway?
[Costume design is] "The art of creating, developing, and selecting costumes that best define character and support the theme, concept, and mood of the production.”
Rebecca Cunningham, The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design, 1989.
Laced backs instead of fronts, necklines all over the place, unrealistic fabric choices, out-of-era corset construction (or no corsets at all!) and let’s not even get started on hair and make-up. We can all recall horrifying period costume moments. It can be a serious disappointment when a TV show or feature film gets an era all wrong.
For those of us who love historical costume, the idea of wishing ourselves back in time is one that might have crossed our minds more than once. We devour fashion history books, decipher period paintings with a magnifying glass, watch countless documentaries and scour the earth in order to find exactly the correct way to remake our dream era look (we’re geeks). When the next 16th century flick is advertised, it’s only natural that we excitedly don our busks and bum rolls (doublets for the boys), and pin our hopes on being transported via that ever sought after time machine, back to the conspiratorial courts of Henry VIII. Upon cheerily embarking on our journey it’s a little jarring, then, to find that none of our leading ladies are wearing a chemise. But is this simply lazy design, a lack of research, or the limitation of budget? What is the real mission for a costume designer on a period production anyway? As much as we might like our designers to be the vanguards in relieving our time traveling jones, what are the other factors to consider?
In this article we discuss what makes for effective costume design, and when or why period accuracy might be discarded.
Above: Costumes designed by Joan Bergin for 'The Tudors’ (2007), a rather more ‘seductive’ take on a Tudor masquerade ball. I spy a bit of a Eugene Lami / romantic ballet influence here - suspiciously 19th Century! (See my ‘Design for Dance’ article)
The role of costume design is not synonymous with that of a costume historian, or the wonderful ladies and gentlemen working in period reconstruction. These are areas of knowledge that are essential for a period designer to understand and draw influence from, but their first and foremost responsibility lies in storytelling. When approaching a new production I begin with an overview of the historical movement and a knowledge of the prevailing trends and technical innovations within that period. Most importantly, I have a keen understanding of the social and political history that restricted or motivated people during that time.
Having an insight into the manner in which people went about their daily lives is critical. This is because a major part of a costume designer’s creative contribution is in assisting to create the characters that populate a production, not just the clothes that they wear. That's not to say that a costume designer doesn’t have a responsibility to understand the period they are designing for. Costume design for any production (historical or otherwise) entails a huge amount of research and working knowledge. However, each production requires a specific focus. In order to divine the creative intent for a project, a designer must coordinate their work with all of the other creative elements within the production. This is a collaborative task; costume should help to reinforce an actor’s delivery, harmonise with the world a production designer has constructed, speak the language the cinematographer wishes to capture, and most importantly, meet the director’s intended vision.
“Costume designers create costumes to sell a character; to support actors in their craft; to help convey a story. Costumes cannot be judged outside of the context of the scene for which they were created. They have nothing to do with real life…”
Deborah Nadoolman, the costume designer responsible for creating the iconic looks of Indiana Jones (1981), Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1985), the Blues Brothers (1980) and many more.
Above: Steven Spielberg's original Indiana Jones sketch for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and on the right, Nadoolman’s refined costume sketch
Whilst the creative intention of one film may differ from another, the need to entertain remains true to all productions. Whether this be through embarking on a thrilling adventure, partaking in scintillating political power games, or in being frightened half witless, the audience must be able to invest in the journey of the characters that are depicted. A costume designer plays one of the key roles in helping to forge this audience relationship. This is a psychological game that works from preconceptions we experience in our everyday lives, filtered through the mechanisms that are unique to cinema. After all, a feature film is only around two hours long: if we are to shed a tear during that final love scene, we have to be taken on a ‘heightened’ journey. Whilst this can absolutely be achieved within strict realism, there is always a need to emphasise motive, create tension and provide resolution. Symbolism through colour, shape or iconography, the use of musical score, the progression and sequence of cuts or even the application of colour grading are all curated elements of a strictly cinematic language. These are ‘tricks’ used to persuade us to step into an imaginary world. In the endeavour to help create characters that we love or loathe, a costume designer must be acutely aware of this cinematic process.
So how can a designer help create believable characters in which an audience can invest genuine emotion, without falling into the trap of producing overblown caricatures or uninteresting cardboard cut-outs?
Immersion is the key to successful design. Costumes must exist perfectly within the world of the production. Whilst some of us may wish this to be a world of historical realism, there must also be a case for expression. The path of ‘artistic licence’ is a tricky one to navigate, and it is the creative team behind the production who must convince us that it is a detour worth investing our feelings in. As an audience member I can certainly agree that whilst journeying through 1805 elite Russia (War and Peace, 2016), my investment in whether Natasha will win over Boris is frequent grated by the shape of Natasha’s straight cut fringe and Helena’s drape neck dresses (indicative of the 1930s classicism revival). It’s a comparable feeling to having a telephone ring during a climactic love scene - the illusion shatters, my emotions turn to a rather more heated state rather than heartbreak, and the ‘magic spell’ fizzles out. Needless to say, it’s a difficult sin to forgive.
A fringe 170 years ahead of its time! Lily James as Natasha Rostova in the 2016 BBC production of ‘War and Peace’, designed by Edward Gibbon.
Case study: "Marie Antoinette"
The first time I watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (costumes by Milena Canonero), I remember feeling outraged at having Siouxsie And The Banshees blaring over the ballroom scene. The infamous shoe and cake scene also didn’t sit well, since the shoes (created by fashion footwear designer Manolo Blahnik) were completely outlandish and far from period accurate. Having thankfully outgrown my rather stubborn student days, I find that I can now better appreciate Coppola’s intentions. The film transposes Antoinette’s confused and conflicting adolescent years through the angst of 1980s post-Punk and New Romanticism. On one level this could be seen simply as an initiative to ‘commercialise’ the Rococo courts, making historical events more palatable for a contemporary audience. On the other, there is an ingenious connection to the fact that, just like the Rococo courts, early 1980s fashion was all about excess. There were several trends in the 80s that took direct influence from the 18th century (see World's End, the New Romantics and Vivienne Westwood). It’s an innovative use of juxtaposition to create tangible emotional connections between a contemporary audience and the plight of a girl living 200 years prior. (The costumes are also rather nice!) The historical ‘eccentricities' of Coppola’s vision work because of the fact that there is a clear intention with the ‘artistic expression’ and the tone is consistent throughout the film (opening with that fabulously pink ‘DIY-punk’ title font). The costumes, characters, setting and score all work within the world of that intention.
On the whole Milena Canonero’s costumes for Marie Antoinette (2006) are relatively on point with historical trends, the masquerade ball being the only scene in which the looks can be accused of over-exaggeration. But compare these costumes with the New Romantic / post-Punk fashion scene of the 1980s and you’ll see that there are some interesting ideas afoot!
The magnificent Adam Ant in a full 18th Century inspired look. Note the striking single band of make-up that could well have been the inspiration for Canonero’s masquerade masks in the costuming of Marie Antoinette (2006).
Case study comparison: Netflix series "Anne with an E" and "Anne of Green Gables"
Perhaps part of the reason I didn’t initially get on with Coppola’s Antoinette was because I had yet to grow an appreciation and understanding of the post-Punk movement. When considering entertainment value, the film and TV industry must understand the changing focus of society as a whole.
The Netflix series ‘Anne’ (2017) (or ‘Anne with an E’ if you’re in the EU), designed by Anne Dixon, caused quite the stir last year with its ‘grim and gritty’ portrayal of the beloved Anne Shirley. Now, Anne is one of my all-time favourite heroines and I adore the original books. Although Moira Walley-Beckett (writer) certainly took liberties with the material, I felt the essence of Anne’s character remained true, and the extended focus on the evolving relationship between Anne and Marilla was fresh and moving. However, the production received heavy flack from other die-hard fans, who felt the series was far too ‘dark’. Most commentary seemed to come from those who had a strong connection the the other well-known screen iteration of L.M. Montgomery's series ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (1985) - designed by Martha Mann.
It's safe to say that the two depictions exist on completely different planes, despite being drawn from the same material. Whilst Walley-Beckett’s choice to reiterate Anne’s abused orphanage background is an altogether more harrowing experience, there is also space for criticism of the 1985 production. Megan Follows’ pretty visage can be difficult to connect with Anne’s feelings of being a ‘plain girl’. Whilst both series are relatively in line with the fashions of the 1880s/90s, it’s interesting to see how far the the differences in tone can be taken. 1985 is curated to be altogether more frilly, flowery, and soft focus, reflecting the production styles of the time (just compare the set decoration of Marilla’s house in 1985 to 2017). In 2017 we see an altogether more plain and realistic version of Anne. Yes, Anne’s childhood is shown to be rough, but she was always written as an orphan, and orphans aren’t especially known for being treated kindly during the Victorian era.
I personally enjoy both screen versions as well as the book, but I can also appreciate that recreating the 1985 Anne in 2017 would feel trite for today's audience. The influence of the contemporary world is one that a costume designer, in collaboration with the director and production designer, must always consider when creating their period world.
Martha Mann’s depiction of Anne in 1985’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’. Those puffed sleeves look to be suspiciously in line with the puffed sleeve revival in fashions of the 1980. Also note - more frills!
In contrast - Anne Dixon’s costuming of Anne in 2017. The same dress but with a hint less excess, reflecting the prominent trends in audience expectations today.
Case study: "The Beguiled"
For the most part, period designers fall into a more balanced approach, selectively adapting historical costumes based on truth, whilst remaining mindful of the importance of supporting storytelling. An excellent recent example would be Stacey Battat’s costuming for ‘The Beguiled’ (2017), directed once again by Sofia Coppola.
The film follows the events unfolding after an injured Union soldier appears on the doorstep of an all-girl Southern boarding school during the American Civil War. Situationally, it could be accepted that the girls forwent dressing in the hoops and formalwear prevalent during the 1860s due to their isolation from society, but Battat and Coppola’s choice of dressing the girls in muted pastels is less believable. The 1966 book by Thomas Cullinan on which the film is based describes the majority of the girls wearing black, in mourning for their lost brothers. Certainly in the situation of the war it would be bordering on inappropriate to wear the pinks and lavenders that we see later in the film.
However, in the context of the production and in the story to be told, these liberties with ‘the truth’ can be justified through their benefit to characterisation. The purposeful choice of using muted pastels, without hoops and formal mourning, reinforces the idea of femininity (a key concept involved in the narrative). It also creates a uniformity between the girls, in contrast with the deep Union navy of Corporal McBurney’s uniform, who represents ‘The Outsider’ on various levels.
The look of the girls emphasises a sense of the relatively unguarded or unprotected nature of their characters. This leads the audience to build preconceived ideas of fragility, a notion that is intentionally set up to be broken later in the narrative. Battat never loses sight of the fact that this is cinema, not a documentary - “Historical accuracy was a priority, but it wasn’t the top priority”. Notice that whilst adhering to the same silhouette, each girl sports her own distinctive look by shade of colour, pattern of fabric or cut and trim. This is a careful consideration when costuming so many characters, often shot grouped together in a single frame. The distinctive polka dot pattern on one of Miss Martha’s (Nicole Kidman) dresses features prominently throughout the film, especially towards the second half. When Corporal McBurney is being followed through the garden in a climactic scene, we are only provided with crop of the hem of a skirt in chase. Through setting up the polka dot earlier in the film and retaining this pattern only for Miss Martha, we clearly identify the character without seeing her face.
Whilst costume conscious viewers are bound to notice these small details, it should be noted that many audience members may only perceive these clues on a subliminal level. Yet these consistent details are essential in order to maintain the pace of the narrative. Good costuming allows the cinematographer and director have the freedom to shoot the scene from any angle without obscuring character. Aside from the period compromises, Battat did choose to insist that all the cast wear historically correct corsetry, despite the fact that this would not be seen on screen (thumbs up!), as she appreciated the effect that period underwear had on posture and silhouette.
Stacey Battat’s subtle yet distinctive differences in the looks of the female cast in ‘The Beguiled’ (2017) by Sofia Coppola.
Case Study: "The Witch"
In contrast to these more ‘liberal’ interpretations of history, I must enter the case of ‘The Witch’ (2015), costumed by Linda Muir, which, despite falling into the genre of fantasy / horror (not especially known for its costume accuracy), manages to balance historical accuracy masterfully with clear, effective characterisation. Despite the production being on a tight budget (it was Robert Eggers' first offering as director), Muir spent considerable time in procuring the correct fabrics for the 1630s period, resulting in a feast of rich textures. Every seam was hand sewn using wools and linens to match historical samples. The direction harmonises with the meticulous work that production designer Craig Lathrop employed in creating the sets, which included the use of hand-forged nails in the house construction.
Despite holding fast to fact, Muir still fulfils her foremost role in characterisation. The choice of pink tones (produced using madder root, or lichens) for Thomasin’s dress, for example, helps to conjure ideas of innocence and youth. Her brown apron links her to both her mother (via silhouette) and her father (via colour pallette). Muir also points out that “of course, under certain circumstances pink can mature into red.” (no spoilers!). This attention to detail and authentic craftsmanship leads to the creation of a hyper-authentic world, bringing to life the etchings we know from books during this period. This methodology is only useful, however, as part of clear reasoning from the director. Eggers required a high level of believability in the world in order to create an investment from the audience in the reality of the characters. This is a setup that would gradually be brought into conflict through the seemingly unnatural events that unfold within the narrative.
A happy, historically accurate family. Linda Muir’s costuming even featured hand-braided linen string ties *swoon*.
In conclusion, when looking at the broad spectrum of the cinematic depictions of historical period, it’s hard to find even a handful of truly ‘accurate’ productions. Even when starting out with the best of intentions, a creative team may be limited by time, by budget or by available information from the period. Let’s not forget that prior to photographic evidence, pattern guides and surviving articles of clothing, we rely primarily on engravings, written accounts and paintings, all of which are susceptible to their own ‘artistic’ bias based on the unique pressures of that time.
The depiction of costume for screen is a highly complex process and requires consideration of many different objectives. When these factors align - stylistic choice, characterisation, world building, continuity and a respect of historical fact - I believe that costume design can be successful. It's in the cases where we see stylisation without clear cause, or lack of continuity or logic within the world of the production, where issues arise. For many of us, films and TV series contributed to sparking our interest in period costume, characters and society. It’s all very well reading the novels and the history books, but there is an undeniable power in seeing the clothes on characters in motion.
Storytelling has always been about embellishments, it's an essential part of drama, so let’s take cinema with a pinch of salt, and let ourselves be entertained and our imaginations be expanded.
The New Romantics
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
The Tudors (2007)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
War & Peace (2016)
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Anne of Green Gables (1985)
Anne with an E (2017)
The Beguiled (2017)
The Witch (2015)
Elizabethan Costume Resource
Interview with Linda Muir for ‘The Witch’ (2015)