The visual impact of a film is key to its success, and costumes are essential in making the picture both beautiful and believable. They are especially important to period films, where they can immediately set the scene: just think of the corseted dresses, doublets and garters in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Elizabeth: the Golden Age’.
Costumes are also central to films set as recently as the twentieth century. 60s fashion is entertainingly depicted in Hairspray (‘Hey mama, welcome to the 60s…’) and is used to show the differences between traditional, conservative Amber and outgoing, forthright Tracey. The Great Gatsby raises the iconic 20s style to new heights, and the bodices in Anna Karenina, set in the 19th century, were inspired by the fifties, with the costumes of Princess Betsy Tsverskoy even referencing geisha wear.
Period costumes not only have to resemble those worn at the time, but costumes are of course used to reflect the characters’ distinct personalities, aspirations and ambitions. In The Other Boleyn Girl, the choice of the ubiquitous ‘French’ hood worn by the Boleyn sisters, which is more revealing as opposed to the English Gable hood worn by Queen Katherine of Aragon and her ladies, whilst a historical misconception, suggests the opposition between the two ‘sides’ at court and highlights the ‘modernity’ of the Boleyn girls. Fashion was also important to the identity of certain characters, most obviously when designers or models are featured in films such as Coco Before Chanel, but also others such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was depicted in The Duchess. Costume also aids actors to get into their given characters through the physical restrictions imposed on them by the garments, such as corsets or military uniforms.
Historical accuracy is not necessarily the goal of the costume designers, and indeed it arguably should not be. The difficulties of finding the correct materials are greatly multiplied if the designer endeavours to be completely accurate, and the practicality of the costume is always an important factor. Yet iconic outfits such as Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, which still survives intact and is featured on paintings of the monarch, are important visual aids to her narrative and should therefore be replicated truthfully (as was the case in The Young Victoria).
The importance of costume design is widely recognised at awards shows, including the Oscars. Previous Oscar winners include films as varied as Memoirs of a Geisha, Anna Karenina and Gladiator. This year the nominees include Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner, perhaps a slightly surprising contender, but also fantasy films with historically inspired costumes such as Maleficent and Into the Woods. Nevertheless the role of costume designers is often taken for granted, despite their significant contribution not only to the visual images of the film but also to our understanding of the characters.
Image: Chris Choy, Mirjam Frank