The Case for Contemporary Costume Design
(From the Winter 2015 issue of The Costume Designer)
By Anna Wyckoff
It’s easy to be dazzled by glamour—after all, sequins are scintillating for a reason. The longing for beauty is hot wired into the human species. In Costume Design, that means swooning at every ruff, ruffle, and kimono. Look no further than the nominations during awards season to see that period and fantasy offerings are transparently favored. To counter this bias and the impossibility of judging between such vastly different genres, our own Costume Designers Guild Awards distinguishes between Period, Fantasy, and Contemporary film and television, as well as Commercials.
When not among the cognoscenti, contemporary Costume Design is often overlooked. Is this because the vocabulary of the elements is familiar? Or because the costumes seem so effortless in their appropriateness for the character, the audience assumes the garments are somehow readily available?
Since recognition of Costume Design is at an all-time high, I would like to ask this audience, particularly the new aficionados, to look deeper and consider appreciation at the connoisseur level: contemporary Costume Design.
Using a more subtle lexicon of clothing than its period and fantasy compatriots, modern design’s goal is the same: to build an immediately recognizable portrait of a character’s psychology at the moment the action of the scene occurs.
We bring you three different vantage points on the process: CDs Mark Bridges and Renée Kalfus with the movies Fifty Shades of Grey and Annie respectively, and CD Rita McGhee with the new television series Empire.
Fifty Shades of Grey
In what can be considered a major feat, Mark Bridges has dodged being pigeonholed and moves fluidly between modern and period films. He is the man who famously brought us a silent garbage bag for the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook, as well as the decadent deco costumes, resplendent even in black and white, for 2011’s CDG and Oscar-winning film, The Artist.
In February, his highly-anticipated movie Fifty Shades of Grey will be released. Based on the erotic book with a fervent fan base, Bridge’s task was complex. In addition to telling the story of the characters, he had to fulfill the expectations of an opinionated and passionate audience. “We had to think of this phenomenal book that millions of people have read and picture the characters in their mind’s eye. It was a big responsibility to either be true, or to allow the costumes to be nonspecific enough that the audience finds them possible.”
An email from the writer alerted Bridges to two costumes her readers would expect. “We had to show serious respect for the following that the book has. That’s a good thing because it gives another level to the challenge that makes it even more interesting to solve,” he asserts.
With a contemporary piece, Bridges feels it comes down to the script, characters, research, putting your hands on the garments, and working with the actor. “The goals of modern costume are the same: character and storytelling are always at the forefront,” explains Bridges. “The way that I approached this film was to try to illustrate who the people are while trying to give it a timeless quality.”
He avoids excessively fashionable items because he finds they date a film. Also since movies have a long shelf life, a classic approach gives more longevity.
Bridges finds it intriguing that in modern films he has the entire scope of fashion at his fingertips. In Fifty Shades of Grey, he transforms Anastasia Steele, or Ana, from a naïve college student in a toggle coat into a woman before the audience’s eyes. “A lot of what I do is to make choices intuitively, then look to see how those choices resonate. For Ana, I show with different beats where the turning points are. If you put the first time we see her in the film against the last time we see her, I think we were successful.” He used a color taken from Christian Grey for Ana’s ending look to signify she has taken on something from him.
Bridges sees Christian Grey’s garments as a physical manifestation of his self-protection. Grey has a different metamorphosis. Bridges demonstrates his softening to Ana in a shift away from stern suits. As Grey trades his formal wear for cashmere t-shirts and loses layers, the textures become softer and more sensuous. “I had a great deal of fun spending quite a bit of money building a billionaire’s wardrobe,” chuckles Bridges. “Christian Grey isn’t about to go shopping. He’s going to have the tailor come to him. There was such limited time, and we had Jamie Dornan only four weeks before shooting. But we made it anyway, and that was really enjoyable.”
Bridges tries to communicate the psychic state of the character through colors, textures, or pieces. He hopes his choices are subtle, but will affect the audience’s perception of the action. “It’s important to be clever about it and not get caught,” he explains. “Maybe our colleagues will notice, but you don’t want the general viewer to be aware, as it will take them out of the story.” As the plot evolves, the two people make a visual impact on each other, taking on silhouettes and colors. “The relationships morph and change, and we tried to really subtly reflect that in the clothes by having them trade textures. It’s so interesting that an important part of what a Costume Designer does is think about these kinds of physiological impacts then try to demonstrate them. Most audiences don’t realize that this is part of a Costume Designer’s job. They just think the job is to put them in good-looking clothes.”
A veteran of many diverse films in different time periods, Renée Kalfus’ oeuvre ranges from the CDG and BAFTA nominated Chocolat to the Cider House Rules. Kalfus brings her expertise and insights to the latest reinvention of the beloved musical Annie. Entrusted with reimaging a nostalgic classic, Kalfus straddled the difficulty of being respectful to the original, while still being fresh.
In a historical piece, the Costume Designer knows how history will frame the story. Kalfus explains, “With period films I can look back on a segment of time from a distance. Choices can be made. And even though you’re creating characters, you’re looking back on the past as a whole.” She, like Bridges, finds in contemporary Costume Design the choices are almost limitless.
The director, Will Gluck, fought to have the movie filmed in New York City and the location seeps into every aspect of the production. Kalfus found that not only did the characters interact with each other, but also the pace and energy of the city was a constant touchstone. “Everything was going to be a reaction to the city,” she says, “For example, the music starts with the sounds and click of a bus or a horn. So with my research, I took this as a cue and really just took it all in.”
To create the look for Annie and the foster children, Kalfus relied on her costume shop. “Every single piece of clothing was built, over-dyed, manipulated, torn, then re-sewn, patched, and embroidered to have the look of hand-me-downs. I worked in the same way I would work on a period film.” Kalfus created a color which she gleefully calls “10 years of bad laundry” to give a unifying patina. She felt that with five girls living under one roof there would be a competitive tension to grab garments and personalize them. She feels that the handmade details are essential to give each girl a distinct personality and keep the musical “real.”
“Annie might have been the character that took more hours in the fitting room than maybe any of my other leading ladies,” remarks Kalfus, “In part because her role is so physical. She does cartwheels, is on a bike, in the subway, and hopping over turnstiles.” The movement and energy had to be taken into consideration, and the costumes, which have a one-off feel, in actuality necessitated many multiples.
For Will Stacks, Kalfus chose quiet refinement to suggest the richest man in New York. She chose subtle tones and a Windsor knot to convey a suggestion of power.
“There was nothing showy, just an extreme elegance and very expensive suits tailored to perfection,” she explains. In contrast, Hannigan’s look hinted at her failed musical aspirations, Kalfus notes. “My feeling is that she was still always sort of ready to be discovered, that she’s still going to become a star. I gave her these sexy, ex-rock-and-roll kind of derivative costumes and had a lot of fun.”
She wanted Annie’s iconic red dress to serve as a thread to the original film. It was one of the first costumes. While she was inspired by vintage couture and movie gowns, Kalfus still wanted it to be completely age appropriate. “The big bow is exaggerated and the scallops make it perfect for a 10-year-old. But it has a kind of, I think, handmade couture, movie star quality to it. So it’s not a story point, necessarily, but certainly a costume highlight or a costume moment, let’s say.”
The originality of the costumes had the retailer Target knocking. “We met very early on while I was in preproduction, and I showed them that I was creating very individualized, do-it-yourself items, which would appeal to different character-driven, individual, strong girls. They got very excited, and the collaboration started from there. It worked out really beautifully and very successfully, I hear. It’s kind of part of what we try to do in the movies. We try to heighten elements, even when they’re real, and create characters that everyone can aspire to.”
With roots in the Independent Film Movement—her first job was working on Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues under CD Ruth Carter—Rita McGhee has had a long career in film, television, and commercial Costume Design. In Empire, Fox’s new drama about a feuding family, McGhee creates costumes for hip-hop royalty, but she seeks to excite audiences with not only glamour, but authenticity.
McGhee searches everywhere. She finds constant inspiration. She watches old movies, gangster movies, movies about empires, family dramas, and shows like Dallas and Dynasty. She looks at fashion magazines, videos, and most importantly, she listens to music.
“Everything around me inspires me. Everything,” McGhee says. “Contemporary Costume Design is about making it work and having it be believable for the character. And with this show, I have to still keep it high fashion. Because Empire is set in the music industry, I researched the people as well as gangsters, crime bosses, their wives, and girlfriends. These characters are celebrities building empires in fashion, bottled water, liquor, and watches. People gravitate towards them because of that, because of the energy their music makes them feel.”
McGhee also listens. She gets insight from her directors Executive Producer Lee Daniels and Co-Executive Producer Danny Strong. She talks to her actors. “I would say that when the actors feel characters, that’s when I know that I have it. I take good notes so that when we have our fittings, we are always working towards the character.” Because her actors are actually performers, she finds their input an inspiration.
In order to paint a portrait of this supersized celebrity life, familiar to audiences worldwide from the constant stream of press that stalks their every move, McGhee uses every resource available to her. She uses high-end garments, low-end garments, and everything between. “If I only used expensive clothes, it would look like a fashion show. It wouldn’t look real, and it wouldn’t make sense,” she says.
Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is in the epicenter. To show her star quality, McGhee dresses her in a jungle of animal prints, bold colors, furs, and jewels. “Cookie is vibrant, loud, and bold. She’s a confident and sexy woman—she’s a boss. So her look is about how she wants to represent herself. She is a mother, so she is vulnerable, but she also went to prison for selling drugs. It was her way of surviving and getting to the next level. She brings a contrast and distraction. She is a force with her color palette and her prints.”
Lucious, played by Terrence Howard, is Cookie’s ex-husband. They still have a love interest and a rivalry. McGhee uses strong colors with royal connotations— purple, golds, and greens—as well as ascots, pinstripes, and all manner of sartorial excess. She keeps the three rival sons distinct. Hakeem, the youngest, is a rapper and his style straddles Givenchy and G-Star. Jamal, the music producer, is less flashy and more laid-back. Andre, the eldest, is always in suits. McGhee sees elements of the parents broken up in their offspring.
She is challenged and delighted to bring this hyperbolic scene to life. But most important to McGhee is to infuse the world with a sense of reality, a believability which reverberates with the audience as much as the music does.
Movies have traded on glamour for almost a century and television for half the amount of time. Beauty is important, but it is merely one weapon in the arsenal of the Costume Designer. Contemporary Costume Design exudes effortlessness because it is knowing, deft, and precise. It uses the language of clothing that is still being made and evolving to describe people that are still living. Its vitality lies in its ability to appropriate our current symbols to give the audience an immediate link to the character.
Anastasia Steele, Christian Grey, Annie, Will Stacks, Cookie, and Lucious may all be in different films or on different networks, but they all inhabit the same world, the world of present tense. Because of the Costume Designer the audience does not question this—they believe.