Costume Design: The Hidden Art Form of Cinema

There is a lot that can be said about a character in a movie by what they wear. The costume of a character alone can give you a hint about the period the film was set (in the 50s, 60s, 90s, or 2000s), the profession of the character (lawyer, doctor, clown, gangster), the financial status of the character (rich and exposed or poor and timid).

Costume Design plays an essential but seemingly quiet role in making a movie memorable and making the characters awesome, whether the character was meant to blend into their environment or stand out from it. Costumes can be described as aids by which film makers tell their stories.

Although costume designers play a crucial role in making characters realistic, they are less celebrated and recognized as actors and directors.

When the word costume is mentioned, what comes into most minds are Halloween outfits and people dressing to appear like someone else. Although this assumption is appropriate, it is only to an extent. The majority of costume designs in cinema is aimed at creating authentic and realistic people on the screen. Let’s profile some great movies and see how costumes influenced their stories.

As was mentioned earlier a costume design could be meant to place the character in a specific period of time. The award winning and one of the highest selling movies of all time, Gone with the Wind, was set in the American civil war era of 1939. Scarlett O’Hara’s costume reflected the conventional outfit of that time and accurately depicts her subsequent fall from grace. Metaphorically, also, the way she attempted to design her outfit reflected the reconstruction era that was to come after the war.

The good folks over at Now You See It created an amazing video essay that deep dives in the role of costume designers.

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In the American epic and award winning movie by George Lucas, Stars Wars, attention is drawn quite quickly to the plot, character or special effects of the movie, but the costumes played as much role in the success of the blockbuster. Princess Leila’s costume design was able to transmit to viewers a blend of alienness and royalty, thereby interpreting that she was both from another world as well as of royal breed. The costumes of the other cast of the movie; The Generals, Robots, and soldiers were vivid enough to transmit to viewers their unusualness but not so much as to get them lost as to the meaning of the costume.

The problem of designing a costume for a present day movie is that when the movie is shot, edited and finally released, the costume would have been outdated. So the challenge is always to design a costume that is a little beyond the film time.

In the Academy Award, rap movie on Eminem, 8 Mile, his costume, the simple hoodie was aimed at reflecting his status and ambition to make it on pure talent and on nothing ostentatious, while keeping viewers’ attention on his face.

Every film has a style, and the costume design is meant to compliment this style be it realism or ostentatious.

Some costumes are meant to make characters stand out of their world while others are meant to blend in. In Roald Dahl’s 1964 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie, the costumes of the other characters in the movie reflected the late 1800s while Wonka’s jacket was a hybrid of a later period, thereby visually portraying a character who is not only out of this world but also ahead of his time. The costume made him stand out. The remake of the movie also reflected the ‘out of the world’ part but has no grip on reality thereby making him appear like a cartoon caricature. In both cases, he stood out from the pack.

Bonnie and Clyde, the American crime biography film, is another movie where costumes were used to depict a standing out. Although the movie was set in the 1930s, the criminal duos style, costume, and obsession with the media placed them in the 1960s making them appear anti-establishment, much like the young people in the real world when the movie was made.

In the 2012 movie Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx’s bright blue costume was intended to make him stand out from his surrounding, perhaps to highlight his status as a free man.

In the 1972 American crime movie, The Godfather, the military costume design of Michael Corleone reflected his wish to stand out from the mafia, who were known to typically wear classy suits. But as the movie progresses, and his resolve broke, his costume design revealed his gradual switch to the mafia life.

Gangster and Mafia costuming reflects an ambition to fit in. Gangsters in most movies typically use costumes to try to fit into high society, but try as much as they may, it is always obvious they are only trying to play dress up and still stand out as mafia.

Another example of dress up can be found in AMC Breaking Bad, where the high school chemistry teacher Walter White tries to appear like a gangster. But as the series progresses he eventually gets what he wants and becomes a gangster.

Also, as mentioned earlier, costumes give an insight into the nature or profession of the character wearing it. In the Stars Wars movie, Luke Skywalker’s costume and aesthetics reflected his status as undergoing martial arts training, while Obi-Wan Kenobi is dressed as a monk or Knight because he is doing the teaching.

Costumes also tell more about a person, the variety of shoes in the opening scenes of Strangers on a train could give the viewers a hint on who is wealthy and who is more of an everyday person. The viewers can make several inferences just from the type or color of the different shoes.

In the movie, 500 Days of Summer, costume color was used to depict each of the two key characters. The opening scene establishes the color pattern for each of the character, brown for Tom and blue for Summer. The color continuously shifts as the film progresses. When Summer enters Tom’s world the color changes to brown.

A great movie is one in which all the production elements come together to do a good job, this includes costuming.


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  1. […] By Maggie Dern […]