April 26, 2013

The Importance of Costume in Films: Some Iconic Images of our Culture


It's a long way to the top in Hollywood but not if you've got a frock 'n' role
PICTURE an action hero with an open-neck shirt, a stockwhip and a wide-brimmed hat planted firmly on his head. Is it Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan's wisecracking bushman? Wrong. Hugh Jackman's drover in Australia? Wrong again. 
Try Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford's archeologist-adventurer who made his first appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a matinee idol, he's as Yankee as they come. But Indy's hat - at least the prototype of it - would speak with an Australian accent.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis did the costume design for Raiders and came up with an outfit for Indy that endured through ongoing episodes of the franchise. The hat was modelled on an Australian style she found at posh English hatter Herbert Johnson.

"It absolutely was," Landis says. "I was in Herbert Johnson and they had an Australian hat, and I cut it down to fit Harrison's face. I cut down the crown - it was too high - and I made the brim much shorter, because the cinematographer told me that he needed to see Harrison's eyes."

A designer, academic and curator, Landis has an obsession for costume and the part it plays in the making of character. The curator of an exhibition coming to Melbourne, Hollywood Costume, she says costume design is about more than the clothes actors wear. The outfit is intrinsic to characterisation.

In the memories of millions of filmgoers, a gingham dress and ruby slippers are inseparable from the character of Dorothy. (Yes, Judy Garland's costume is coming to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, although the shoes are replicas.) And that chic Givenchy black dress most definitely is Holly Golightly's from Breakfast at Tiffany's. (It's coming, too.)

"We're called costume designers but really we should be called people designers," says Landis, speaking from her office at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she is founding director of the David C. Copley Centre for the Study of Costume Design.

"That's what we're in the business of, creating the people in the movie ... It's as much about clothes as the clothes you are wearing now. It's really much more about material culture."
It seems that when inventing a character through costume, a hat is just the thing to top it off. Landis has done costume designs for several films by her director husband, John Landis, some of which feature unmistakable millinery.

She worked on The Blues Brothers, with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd pairing Ray-Bans with fedoras inspired by John Lee Hooker's headwear. For Three Amigos, she put Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short in extravagant sombreros. In each case, the hats give shape to an instantly recognisable silhouette.

"The reason why millinery is so crucial is that it's right on your head, and very close to your eyes," Landis says.

"Movies depend on an actor's eyes to tell the story. The hat is going to be even in a close-up, the only thing in a frame with the actor, so they have to be perfect.

"You could recognise Indiana Jones by his shadow, and you certainly can recognise the Blues Brothers by their shadows: they are the Laurel and Hardy of the rhythm and blues set. Even though you may not recognise Harrison Ford with no hat, you would recognise Indiana Jones."

While Aykroyd and Belushi's outfits from The Blues Brothers will be seen in Hollywood Costume, Indiana Jones's outfit, sadly, will not. George Lucas lent costumes from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark for the exhibition's first outing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney last year for $US4 billion, the loan arrangements hit a snag that, seemingly, not even the intrepid Indy could escape.

"George was wonderful and absolutely gave me the Indiana Jones costume, also Darth Vader and Han Solo," Landis says.

"It was wonderful to have all three of them in London. I think that they will come back to the show much later in the tour, when George himself can intercede. But it was too quick to turn it around for Melbourne."

When motion pictures were first being made at the turn of the 20th century, costume design was not a priority. As Landis writes in her catalogue notes, costume was one of the "hit or miss" aspects of pioneer filmmaking.

Actors usually turned up in their own clothes, or costumes were borrowed from Broadway wardrobes.

The first filmmakers take costume seriously were producer Adolph Zukor, who brought from France The Loves of Queen Elizabeth (1912), with Sarah Bernhardt wearing Paul Poiret; and director DW Griffith, whose Intolerance (1916) is credited as the first Hollywood film to have costumes for the entire cast.

One of the earliest costumes in the exhibition is the pleated jade-green gown designed by Travis Banton for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934). A publicity still from the picture has the Egyptian queen at her toilette, mooning into a vanity mirror and surrounded by a bevy of chorus girls who could have stepped in from a Busby Berkeley number. It's telling how the fashions of the day give form to the imagination of history: Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra is more an art deco fantasy than an authentic reconstruction of the ancient world.

We are now in Hollywood's golden age and as movies rolled off the production line, studios had teams of costumiers at work: a chief designer, head of wardrobe, sketch artists, researchers and seamstresses. Costume designers were unbelievably productive. Adrian Adolph Greenberg, or "Adrian" as he is known from movie credits, worked on more than 250 films, and did 3210 costume sketches for The Wizard of Oz alone. Edith Head worked from the late 1920s to the early 80s, picking up eight Academy Awards along the way. She designed what was once billed as the most expensive film costume made: a sequinned, mink-lined dress for Ginger Rogers in 1944's Lady in the Dark.

Another prolific costume designer, Orry-Kelly, worked on more than 300 films, from Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the 30s through to wartime dramas The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, and romantic comedies such as An American in Paris and Irma la Douce. Not bad for a kid from Kiama, NSW.

The designer is represented in Hollywood Costume by the figure-hugging dress he designed for Marilyn Monroe for Some Like It Hot, with a love-heart smack on the bottom. But his relative obscurity today may be emblematic of the fate of many costume designers, whose work is too frequently eclipsed by the actors who wear their clothes.

Gillian Armstrong, for one, wants to bring him back into focus. The director is working on a documentary about the Australian-born designer, whose father was a tailor, and whom Jack Warner would later praise for his classy creations.

"He was a would-be actor," Armstrong says. "He started in Sydney in vaudeville in his early 20s and he went to Broadway to try and make it in showbiz.

"I think he always had an understanding of actors and story. He didn't just come from the design world but he had a real love of theatre, character and storytelling."

Armstrong is trying to track down a copy of an unpublished memoir by Orry-Kelly and hopes to talk to legendary designer Ann Roth, who as a younger designer worked with Orry-Kelly at the end of his career.

In Hollywood Costume, Landis has attempted to bring the work of costume designers to the foreground. The fashion world constantly draws on the movies for inspiration, she says, but film designers rarely get their due acknowledgment.

"The amazing thing is that we are hidden in plain sight," Landis says. "We celebrate these characters that become iconic, but how that character is formed has never been really looked at or unpicked ...

"The proof is that when fashion designers are asked to talk about their inspiration, nine out of 10 will talk about the movies, most will talk about the movie star, and 99.99 per cent will never know, or certainly never mention, or it may not occur to them to mention, the costume designer who created the look in the movie," Landis says in a rising pitch of good-natured exasperation.

In modern filmmaking, the fortunes of costume design have followed the ups and downs of Hollywood. As budget pressures increased in the 70s, costume designers did their work and were sometimes let go when shooting began.

Easy Rider brought in the new wave of filmmaking but had no need for a costume designer at all.

More recently, costume designers have faced the compromising influence of product placement, where fashion labels pay to have their clothes on screen, and fresh challenges have been presented by the rise of computer-generated imagery. Landis describes CGI as "another creative frontier" for designers, much as Technicolor was.

And yet costume designers continue to enliven motion pictures with their contributions to story and character. Colleen Atwood has helped give form to the wacky individuals in many of Tim Burton's projects, from Edward Scissorhands to Alice in Wonderland. Hollywood Costume includes Renee Zellweger's outfit from Chicago, for which Atwood won the first of her three Academy Awards.

Australian designers are represented by John Truscott, with Vanessa Redgrave's ivory gown from Camelot; Kym Barrett, with the black coat worn by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix; Catherine Martin, with Nicole Kidman's leotard from Moulin Rouge!; and Orry-Kelly's flesh-toned sequinned dress for Marilyn Monroe. Other notable costumes include Kate Winslett's Edwardian attire from Titanic, Cate Blanchett's Elizabethan gown from Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. The exhibition has more than 100 costumes by 50 designers.

Landis grew up in Manhattan and says she can't remember a time when she wasn't playing make-believe and dressing up ("I'm just a girl drag queen," she says.) She was making outfits as soon as she could operate a sewing machine and, when older, would pay $3 to stand at the back of Broadway theatres, watching every show she could.

"I can make something out of nothing. If I ate with you and there was a paper doily on the table, I would be making Elizabethan ruffs and cuffs out of it, with placemats," she says.

She does not overstate the importance of costume: it is but one element among many that create the illusionary world of a movie. But during her presidency of the Costume Designers Guild, she realised costume was undervalued as a subject of scholarly and popular inquiry. She worked on Hollywood Costume for five years, intending it to be "touring classroom" on design.

"It became very clear that no one - not the film industry, our creative peers, or our adoring audience - really understood the costume designer's contribution to popular culture," Landis says. "The Hollywood Costume exhibition is an education in film design by the way of entertainment."
Hollywood Costume is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, April 24 to August 18. 

Article with thanks to The Australian


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