The Role of Costumes and Costume Designers

Congratulations to Deborah Nadoolman Landis, author of Filmcraft: Costume Design who will be presented with the 2015 Edith Head Award for the Advancement and Education of the Art of Costume Design at the Costume Designer Guild Awards in February. For more information:

The role of the costume designer is really quite simple: costume designers design the people in the movie. Our contribution to the story is more profound than providing the clothes for a production. The word “costume” works against us. The word is vulgar when what we do is incredibly refined. “Costume” is invariably associated with Halloween, fancy dress, parade, theme park, Mardi Gras, carnival, and the clothes in fantasy and period films. To costume designers, “a costume picture” means nothing more than our next project. Adding to the confusion by the industry and the public about our role is an uncertainty about the fundamental purpose of costume design. Film costuming serves two equal purposes: the first is to support the narrative by creating authentic characters (people); and the second is composition, to provide balance within the frame by using color, texture, and silhouette.

In addition to the creation of the authentic people in the movie, costume designers also help paint each “frame” of film. If the dialogue is the melody of a movie, the color provides the harmony, a satisfying visual cohesiveness or “style.” It’s imperative for the designers on a film to have a strong reference point from which to create a style. Beyond the panniers of Marie Antoinette and the exaggerations of any period silhouette, every costume adds texture and color to a scene. The choices for a designer abound. In fact, designers complain that contemporary costuming presents “too many” choices. Some designers prefer the stark simplicity of the flat planes of solid color fabric, while others prefer using multiple patterns and find it the key to layering character. Designers may alter their approach with the feel of the project and make adjustments to accommodate the style of the director. The modern hoodie sweatshirt, like Eddie Murphy’s red hoodie in my design for Trading Places (1983), Mark Bridges’ gray hoodie for Eminem in 8 Mile (2002), and Michael Kaplan’s black hoodie for Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011) is the contemporary answer to the hip man’s hat and jacket. Framing the face and focusing our attention to an actor’s most important feature— his eyes—hoodies underscore their dialogue. Color is a powerful tool that directors and costume designers leverage to support the narrative and create a unified fictional space. Color telegraphs emotion in a scene to the audience as quickly as the musical score. And a costume has to move—designers work in a kinetic art.

A successful costume must be subsumed by the story and be woven seamlessly into the narrative and visual tapestry of the movie. Aggie Guerard Rodgers put it this way: “I want the clothes to not get in the way of the writer’s words.” Even in the Hollywood style of the 1930s, which was considered realistic by the 1920s standards, motion pictures could not survive one glamorous entrance after another. Movies are not fashion shows that runway models perform with a blank stare; there is a reason that they are called “mannequins.” They are the human hangers for a fashion designer’s imagination. Costumes, like the characters they embody, must evolve within the context of the story and the arc of the character within it. Hollywood has suffered through the poor choice of spectacle over story again and again. From the early epics, which were top-heavy with gaudy sets and bejeweled extras, to today’s super-hero special effects extravaganzas, Hollywood has always been tempted to show too much. Certainly, costume design has a place in cinema spectacle, but what the audience remembers and what stays forever, is a great movie regardless of the number of people (or what they are wearing) on screen. Whatever the budget, the best movies transport the audience. Suspension of disbelief is complete when the audience “notices” nothing and is entirely immersed in the story.

Every costume in a motion picture, whether it’s David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999, designer Michael Kaplan) or John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996, designer Shay Cunliffe), was created for a certain moment in the arc of a film, to be lit in a certain way, to be seen on one set, on one actor. Costumes in the movies are made for that moment by the designer to fulfill the needs of the director and the screenplay. In modern comedy and drama the clothes will not be noticed but they will affect the audience. Lone Star is an ensemble piece with multiple concurrent stories. Sayles wove that complex narrative into a brilliant tale and depended on Cunliffe to create characters that we can instantaneously recognize without confusion. Fincher’s Fight Club is the story of a personality split in two, embodying the sexy Tyler Durden and the uptight Narrator. Kaplan has said that their contrasting clothes looked like they were created for two different films. These exquisite examples of the art of costume design can only exist in the universe of modern costuming. It is the place where the audience can recognize the character as a person they may know or may be. The subtleties of the costume design are well beyond the cut of a period sleeve; they reach into the very soul of the character.

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. “I’ve never used this much color in a male actor in a film. Director David Fincher told me, ‘you can’t go too far.’ Here you can see how I contrasted the palettes of Brad Pitt’s and Edward Norton’s clothes. I also needed to manufacture the thrift-shop look, since multiples were needed for the fight scenes.”

Many of the designers in my book Filmcraft: Costume Design have enduring partnerships with their directors. Mark Bridges is currently designing his sixth movie with Paul Thomas Anderson. They have been working together for 16. Bridges says, “That doesn’t mean it’s without occasional tensions.” Joanna Johnston, a long-time Spielberg stalwart, agrees, “I love working for new directors, too, but I love the trust you get from the director that you’ve worked with before.” Janty Yates is currently at work on her seventh movie for Ridley Scott. Working with the same director creates shorthand and saves precious time. In the pressure cooker that is modern film pre-production, the value of having a pre-existing relationship with a director makes an exponential difference in what a costume designer can produce in a very short time. Confidence in their ability to second-guess a director may allow a designer to take a risk with a character or a costume that they would otherwise play safe in a new professional relationship.

Chris Cooper in Lone Star

Costumes are one of the tools a filmmaker has to tell a story. A designer’s challenge is to realize the director’s vision and to bring that script (and that moment) to the screen. No script, no set, no costumes. A designer’s work is inextricable from the theatrical context and collaborative interrelationships in which they work—the dialogue, the actor, the cinematography, the weather, the season, the time of day, the choreography of movement and a dozen other dilemmas all present challenges. Judianna Makovsky said, “It’s funny. A lot of directors aren’t necessarily interested in the clothes…they’re more interested in the character and the visuals of the whole world.” Wise directors use film designers to articulate the visual world of the screenplay. Communication is the key—directors must tell us what they want. Costume designers and production designers don’t work in a vacuum. A designer’s work exists to actualize the screenplay—defining the people and the places, a marriage of concept and imagery. That’s why it’s called the language of film design. Designers love a director who’s a collaborator, somebody who inspires us to do our best work. Sometimes, directors and designers get pegged in a genre when a conventional wisdom dictates that period and fantasy films require a specialist. Mary Zophres remembers when, “…after The Big Lebowski (1998) the Coens called: ‘We’re going to do this movie called, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou.’ A lot of directors in Hollywood would have gone to a designer who had designed a 1930s’ movie. It didn’t even occur to them. They feel that I’m capable of designing anything that they write.”

Excerpted from Filmcraft: Costume Design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis © 2012 Taylor and Francis Inc. All rights Reserved.

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