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troublemag | November 26, 2022

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Dressing the Movies Part Two by Inga Walton

As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces program, Hollywood Costume, an initiative of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 18 August, 2013. Part One of this extended feature on the sprawling exhibition was in our June 2013 issue of Trouble.

By the time he retired in 1966, Walter Plunkett (1902-82) was one of the film industry’s most revered talents, with ten Oscar nominations (1950-63) and one win. He worked on over 170 films, first as head designer at RKO until 1935, and afterwards for Selznick International Pictures, MGM, and Walt Disney Productions. Plunkett’s credits include King Kong (1933), Little Women (1933 & 1949), Duel In the Sun (1946), Show Boat (1951) and Singin’ In the Rain (1952). Despite admitting that, “I don’t think it was my best work, or even the biggest thing I ever did…”, his greatest triumph remains Gone With the Wind (1939). Plunkett created some five thousand five hundred separate items of clothing for fifty-nine major characters: including two hundred and six changes for the principal women, and eighty-three changes for the principal men. Hundreds of rented costumes for the extras also had to be fitted to his specifications. Even if he did bow slightly to the fashions of the day, Plunkett established the definitive filmic archetype of the Civil War-era Southern belle with his costuming for Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a cinematic period he would revisit with Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County (1957) starring Dame Elizabeth Taylor.


Despite having already designed thirty-five hats for the film, Plunkett was left quietly seething over a commercial arrangement producer David O. Selznick struck with New York milliner Mr. John (John Pico Harberger, 1902-93) to provide Scarlett’s hats; probably the least ‘authentic’ items of clothing in the film. On display is ‘Scarlett’s change #16’, the dress Plunkett would later suggest was, “probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures”. Unable to pay the new land taxes on Tara implemented by the Reconstructionalists, Scarlett decides to visit Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in gaol, hoping to charm him into advancing her the money. With no suitable clothes to wear, she pulls down the moss-green velvet portières still hanging in the front room, telling Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), “I’m going to Atlanta for that $300, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen”. Plunkett followed author Margaret Mitchell’s preference for Scarlett in green – which she wears almost exclusively in the book – and had the fabric slightly faded, ostensibly to show the effects of constant sunlight on the curtains. His extensive research, obsession with period authenticity, and perfectionism on the film led to the observation, “Plunkett’s attention to detail, control and accuracy was Selznick’s system in microcosm. He placed costuming on a level with scripting and directing: no effort was spared, no obstruction tolerated”.


Inevitably, it is historical genre and period films that tend to offer the greatest challenge and exhilarating possibilities for a designer, where they can be at their most indulgent. Calculated to deliver a ‘wow factor’ to audiences, these overtly lavish and spectacular confections often garner the most widespread attention off-screen as well. The exhibition’s central tableaux groups together seven magnificent gowns created for royal and noble characters on screen over the last eighty years. The earliest is the elongated velvet court dress trimmed with bands of silver worn by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933). Designer Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenberg, 1903-59) worked with Garbo on eighteen successive films beginning in 1928, and his creations were central to burnishing her mystique as the remote, melancholic, and impossibly glamorous ‘Swedish Sphinx’. Although the costume is not authentic to the period in the mid-seventeenth century when Christina abdicated the Swedish throne, Adrian explained, “Literal reproductions would not have achieved the dramatic quality we sought … As far as is known, the queen never possessed such a costume but as a picture it struck both designer and director [Rouben Mamoulian] as conveying a dramatic credibility within the particular scene”.


Milena Canonero is a seasoned Academy regular, nominated for the Oscar eight times, and winning thrice. Her first nomination (with Ulla-Britt Söderlund) for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) yielded the award, as did her most recent citation for Sophia Coppola’s pastel-hued pop interpretation of the shallow Marie Antoinette (2006), examples from which are positioned in relation to one another. Excerpts from various ‘biopic’ films based on the life of Elizabeth I are screened behind two magnificent Oscar-winning costumes, which emphasise the imposing look and sculptural possibilities inherent to sixteenth century attire. A black and gold jewel-encrusted velvet gown and trailing cloak by Sandy Powell was worn by Dame Judi Dench as the aging monarch in John Madden’s romance Shakespeare In Love (1998). The vivid orange damask silk and velvet flocked dress by Alexandra Byrne was made for Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1999 film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). Cate Blanchett reprised her role as the indomitable queen, facing down the might of the Spanish Armada in 1588, “This film is about [Elizabeth’s] journey towards immortality. The scale of the skirt at the hem actually defines her space; you physically cannot get close to the queen. I used colour to make her radiant within her Court”, says Byrne.


In the midst of such opulent examples from demonstrably ‘costume films’, science fiction and action fans have not been neglected. However, it is unfortunate that the sale of Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion last year seems to have scuttled the loan agreements for two costumes from Star Wars-Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), and senior curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ own design for Indiana Jones, which were in the London show.


An early example of the fantasy genre comes in the form of the silk and velvet robe for Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) from Flash Gordon (1936). Also on display is the neon yellow tracksuit for the vengeful Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) by Kumiko Ogawa and Catherine Marie Thomas; Penny Rose’s rock-chic pirate duds for Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011); April Ferry’s version of the scavenged clothing look established in the previous films for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-101 cyborg in Terminator III: Rise of the Machines (2003); John Bloomfield’s interpretation of the famous lycra suit for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) flies overhead; James Acheson’s ‘exoskeletal’ spandex suit for Spider-Man (2002) clings to the wall; Bob Ringwood and Mary Vogt’s skin-tight PVC outfit for Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Batman Returns (1992) lolls on a shelf.


Lindy Hemming won her Oscar for the costume design of Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy (1999). She has since produced costumes for the three films in Christopher Nolan’s ‘reboot’ of the Batman franchise, the final incarnation of which looms over the room from its elevated plinth. “For Batman Begins (2005), [we] wanted to change the Batsuit radically – to make it more modern and believable as an item that someone would wear for protection and agility. By The Dark Knight Rises (2012), we’d worked it out and completely redesigned it, with only the modifications for action Batman has in the script”. Hemming has also worked on the longest running franchise in film history, James Bond, beginning with GoldenEye (1995). She collaborated with Italian luxury tailors Brioni on a fresh look for a ‘greener’ Bond in Daniel Craig’s first outing as the sixth actor in the Eon series, Casino Royale (2006). “At the beginning of the film, Bond is undercover and blends in with his background … he doesn’t look like the traditional Bond at all. By the time he appears at the casino in the Bahamas, he’s wearing his tuxedo, the ‘established’ Bond look”, Hemming notes. “As he becomes more comfortable with his 007 status, he dresses more stylishly”.


Costumes for action/adventure films often don’t have the visual impact that period films do, as many of the characters tend to wear more anonymous ‘street clothes’ which blend in. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) designer Shay Cunliffe had precisely this aim when dressing Matt Damon, “I distilled Bourne’s ‘look’ down to one of pure, utilitarian simplicity. My goal was to create a totally functional and forgettable garment so that Bourne could move efficiently and invisibly through the world. Twenty-five copies of these jackets were needed to handle all the abuse they would take during the action sequences”. The popularity of the Die Hard series of films starring Bruce Willis now spans twenty-five years, and is a testament to the winning formula of the reluctant ‘everyman’ thrust into exceptional circumstances. For Marilyn Vance who worked on the original movie, Die Hard (1988), the nondescript clothes helped the audience relate to the character, and serve to emphasise his matter-of-fact stoicism. “[Officer] John McClane is an ordinary man plunged into an extraordinary situation, becoming an ‘accidental hero’. Arriving at a corporate Christmas party after a long journey, he ducks into a bathroom to clean up when the building is taken over by terrorists”, she recounts. “Barefoot and wearing only his white (ever more distressed) undershirt, McClane wages a one-man war and survives near impossible odds”.


Other designers have resorted to heightened or exaggerated versions of extant styles to suggest a futuristic world, but one not too far removed from our own. Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the EMP Museum, Seattle has posited that ‘asynchronous costuming’ allows viewers to imagine themselves as part of the narrative, “paradoxically, given the futuristic settings explored, sci-fi films often feel like products of their time”. Australia’s Kym Barrett rose rapidly through the industry after her attention-getting début film as a costume designer, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). She went on to complete The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003) for directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, and is represented by one of her ‘cyber-fetish’ outfits for ‘The One’, Neo (Keanu Reeves), from the first film. Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode won the costume BAFTA for Sir Ridley Scott’s landmark dystopian epic Blade Runner (1982). Kaplan describes the form-fitting ‘corporate suits’ for Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s assistant, the replicant Rachael (Sean Young), as “a whacked-out take on the 1940s that pushed the clothes into the future. We exaggerated the shoulders so that the shoulder pads had nothing to do with the way they did things in the 1940s, but it still had that film noir feeling that we were looking for”.


Changing cultural norms, audience expectations, and technological advances have also significantly influenced how costumes are designed and how they look on-screen. “Costume design is a living art, it’s happening on film sets today. Costumes are one channel by which characters are transformed from the written page into multi-dimensional people”, Nadoolman Landis believes. Computer generated imagery (CGI), digital animation, and the increasing use of motion capture (‘mocap’) technology presents designers with further challenges as that process of transformation becomes ever more sophisticated. Actor Andy Serkis is renowned for his work in motion capture, creating the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and The Hobbit (2012-14) trilogies, and as the titular King Kong (2005), under the direction of Sir Peter Jackson. “Motion capture offers limitless possibilities. [It] is such a liberating tool … a magic suit that allows you to play anything regardless of your sex, your size, your colour, whatever you are, as long as you have the acting chops and the desire to get inside a character”, Serkis maintains. The ‘mocap’ suit he wore as the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) looks surprisingly drab and deflated without the transformative abilities of the actor.


Certain scenes and clothes can resonate far beyond the context of the original film, and will be immediately recognisable to viewers. The infamous leg-cross of Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) during a police interview in Basic Instinct (1992) wearing a short wool crêpe suit by Ellen Mirojnick. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) pausing before a window display during Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) in a black satin dress by couturier Hubert de Givenchy. The first time we see Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) peering out from under a picture hat by Oscar-winner Deborah L. Scott, so large and overwhelming it seems to preface the perils she will soon face in Titanic (1997). Arguably the most famous school uniform in the world, the well-worn Gryffindor robe of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) by Jany Temime, who costumed all but the first two films in the franchise. For Nadoolman Landis, the explanation is as simple as it is gratifying, “When a character and a film capture the public’s imagination the costumes can ignite worldwide fashion trends, influence global culture, and may become embedded in our collective unconscious. Cinematic icons are born when the audience falls deeply in love with the people in the story. And that’s what movies, and costume design, is all about”.


Nadoolman Landis was in a particularly buoyant humour at the Melbourne launch of Hollywood Costume. She had just been informed that the exhibition’s weighty monograph, which she edited, had received the “Best Moving Image Book Award” from the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation (UK), a charitable organisation established in 1985 by publisher Andor Kraszna-Krausz.


Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, Melbourne (VIC) –

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