When a Costume Design Becomes Iconic
By Anna Wyckoff, Friday, November 25, 2011
With their resplendent period glory, sweeping costume epics often dominate the quest for accolades and gold statuettes. But an entirely different aspect of costume design also triggers seismic shifts in the public psyche.
While these garments may appear deceptively simple, their images sear into the communal consciousness. As years and decades pass, these unassuming choices stand the test of time. Their mainstream impact finally becomes apparent because a costume’s cultural importance is best judged through the lens of history.
Given the challenges of a ruthless and unforgiving production schedule, few Costume Designers set out to create cultural icons. But sometimes their intuitive expression of character in a costume resonates with the public, captures the zeitgeist of a time, and the garment takes on a life of its own, independent of the film or television show of its origin.
Think of designer Carlo Simi’s olive serape in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” whose rough devil-may-care style makes overtures at a superhero’s cape for the ultimate antihero, Clint Eastwood. Or the naughty androgyny of the black halter, shorts, thigh-high stockings, and bowler designed by Charlotte Flemming for Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret.” Also epitomizing this genre is the notorious white disco suit Patricia von Brandenstein dressed John Travolta in for “Saturday Night Fever,” which spawned a decade of copies, not to mention Michael Kaplan’s shorn sweatshirt for Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance,” or Betsy Heimann’s personification of 1990’s minimalist chic, the French cuffed white shirt and slim, flaired pants for Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction”—the list goes on.
We consider three costumes which define this phenomenon:
In 1939, legendary Costume Designer Adrian made 3,210 sketches for MGM’s now classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” About a thousand specialty costumes were constructed carefully with consideration for the new requirements of Technicolor film. Among the fanciful munchkins, winged monkeys, and witches was a winsome pale blue and white gingham pinafore and ruby sequined slippers for the lead character of Dorothy, played by Judy Garland. Little could Adrian imagine that seventy years later one of the Dorothy dresses would command $910,000, while her shoes would fetch $510,000. Another pair of slippers is set for auction in December of this year, with a presale estimate of $2,000,000–$3,000,000.
The costume’s whereabouts have been tracked with fervor by fans and collectors alike. One pair of ruby slippers has been dubbed the “People’s Shoes,” and is immortalized in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History as the heart of the Icons of American Culture exhibit. It resides alongside such objects as the Alexander Graham Bell light bulb and one of the first Kodak cameras.
Why does the Dorothy costume garner so much adulation? Firstly, “The Wizard of Oz” ranks in the pantheon of the public’s most beloved films. Also, Dorothy’s humble frock and shoes not only capture her character, but have come to inhabit a singular place in pop culture. In a rare synchronicity epitomizing costume’s capacity for metamorphosis, the garments are now emblematic of an innocence that captures the American mindset of the time, which is recalled by the film’s haunting mantra, “There’s no place like home.”
In the 1950’s, the teenager emerged as an independent voice and demographic. Director Nicholas Ray wanted to capture their plain style as depicted in Life magazine with his film “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Costume Designer Moss Mabry complied. Turning away from typical Hollywood glamour, Mabry’s design for the Jim Stark character played by James Dean was a red nylon jacket, a white undershirt, and Lee 101 Rider jeans. To amplify the effect of CinemaScope, Mabry overdyed the denim. He also meticulously finessed the jacket’s proportions. The effect is riveting. Diametrically opposed to the purity of the Dorothy costume, Dean’s ensemble defined a new aspect of the American psyche, rebellion as worn by the American teenager.
Understated and intentionally cool, it reinforced the generation gap and celebrated youthful ennui and angst. This costume’s far reaching legacy is on display everyday at every high school in every corner of the United States—where teenage rebellion is an assumption and the look is now a uniform.
To Oscar winning Costume Designer William Travilla, the garment now known as the “Subway” dress was typical of the design challenges he met daily while under contract to Twentieth Century Fox.
Travilla was dressing Marilyn Monroe for the role of “That Girl” in Billy Wilder’s 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.” He wanted to heighten the character’s sexy adorableness and amplify the costume’s potential movement. While Travilla preferred natural fabrics, he created a bias-cut halter dress in an ivory rayon-acetate crepe to hold the sunburst pleats.
The resulting image of an insouciant Marilyn reveling in the subway breeze with her dress billowing around her is iconic. The final shot, removed from the film by censors for a then-racy peek of panty, was exploited in the movie’s advertising, which included a 52-foot cut-out of Marilyn in Times Square.
The public was scandalized and titillated, Marilyn’s husband of the time Joe DiMaggio was incensed, and history was made. The halter recently sold at auction for $4.6 million, the highest price for any item of film memorabilia to date. Not only has Travilla’s design endured, it has come to symbolize Hollywood to the world.
While distinctions are regularly bestowed upon elaborately costumed films and television shows whose effort in design is obvious, there is no award for a Costume Designer who has the courage to make simple, decisive choices. In a rare turn of parity, sometimes history confers the distinction.