In a recent book about film-making I observed a flow chart about the different phases from concept to distribution. I was rather bemused by the author’s view that wardrobe design does not appear on the chart until after three drafts of the screenplay. Of course this all depends on whether the director is briefing a wardrobe department or if there is a real collaboration between the designer and director. Good design enhances the characters, making a visual ‘punctum’ that can support the unique advantage of the film.
Iconic movies like Star Wars use costume design to promote the film, as well as licensing the images for use by third party corporations, who in turn add to the global promotion. This is branding at its best, associating with companies who have a similar target audience to the film, thereby gaining greater press coverage.
Designing film costumes presents a range of challenges, not just how to use cloth to emphasize the characteristics of the actors. Costume helps to develop the narrative by using semiotics to guide the viewer through a whole range of signs and symbols. Carol, a film about a lesbian affair, was shot on location in Cincinnati, although it was set in New York City in the 1950s. It is important to realise that during this time period lesbian relationships would have been frowned on.
The costumes for Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, were tailored in 1950s style. The predominant colour red emphasized her blonde hair and signified a strong character. The use of fur was abundant, as well as decorative gold jewellery such as big brooches and wide bracelets, popular in the 1950s. The main objective of the design was to ensure the film was memorable long after the trip to the cinema.
Sandy Powell, Carol’s costume designer, explained that her brief was to make the clothes realistic, whilst recognising class, and the likely cost of the clothes. Powell, notes that whilst Cate Blanchett had most of her wardrobe especially made Rooney Mara, who plays Carol’s lover, wore a lot of vintage, sourced locally in Cincinnati (Lidbury, 2015).
The costumes for the film The Beautiful Game were designed to show that Zita, the heroine, is interested in fashion design, despite the fact that she works in a World War I factory making army uniforms. Two iconic pieces were designed for one of the key scenes (See Figure 1 below). Young Zita is delivering an evening gown she has made for Isobel, an upper-class lady living in a manor house.
While she is waiting in the hallway she reaches up to the Christmas tree (back shot) to touch a glass bauble. It is at this moment that she meets the love of her life Jack (front shot). The coat has been designed in wine red velvet because the fabric will catch the lights from the tree. The dress Zita carries on her arm has been carefully constructed to subtlety utilize green violet and white – the colours of the suffragette movement.
Fig 1. Detail from velvet coat, The Beautiful Game, 2015.
The main challenge was making the silk velvet coat. The material was hard to manipulate and required a number of iterations to ensure that the close-up shots of the coat showed its design features.
Collaborating with a range of makers is essential, particularly for tailoring.
Knowing which craftspeople can pattern-cut from design drawings and those that can alter vintage clothes are talents that require a range of different relationships working as a team.
Developing a strong team of designers, pattern cutters, dressmakers, vintage sourcing experts, and accessory providers, is essential for period drama film-making.