August 19, 2016
Imagine being tasked with reimagining one of the most memorable epic films of all time. Varya Avdyushko was faced with this daunting responsibility when she was hired to design the costumes for the recent remaking of Ben-Hur. Cultural expectations were not her only obstacle. As she dove deeply into her period research of paintings and mosaics, she realized it was impossible to find a visual representation of Jewish culture, because in ancient times, it specifically forbade the depiction of people. To find accurate historic references, Avdyushko additionally read many period texts specifically searching for details about clothing.
There have been many eye-catching representations of the Roman army in film through the years. But following her directors’ cue, Avdyushko shifted her focus from strict veracity to creating a hybrid of the past and present, which is palatable to a modern eye. She chose to consider the Roman army through the prism of the Special Forces, which are presently stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan and sought to make their costumes more utilitarian. Avdyushko added layers of leather belts and vests with pockets to make the familiar silhouette of the cuirass look contemporary and functional.
Avdyushko used color strategically through out the film. In the beginning she employed bright colors to infuse the scenes with optimism and warmth. When Ben-Hur returns from slavery with his life changed and ruined, Avdyushko desaturated the colors into pale sepia tones. For the crucifixion scene, she tuned the palate even darker to reflect the pervasive sorrow.
Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) plays a traveler who doesn’t belong to either the Roman world or Jerusalem. Avdyushko pulled from her personal collection of antique fabrics to create his lush, ethnic garments. The necklace he wears throughout the film is an authentic Tuareg protection amulet and she used real jewels on his pieces to represent his wealth.
For Esther’s (Nazanin Boniadi), Avdyushko resorted to one forbidden tactic, she gave her pants underneath her costume. She felt that this one choice gave Esther hidden strength and armed Boniadi with a psychological edge to create a powerful character.
Avdyushko considered the climatic race scene almost like a separate story. She says, “A lot of my armor was made from leather. I had an amazing workshop in Italy. Everything was made by hand and it required hundreds of hands to make it.” Avdyushko felt the weight of the responsibility of rethinking one of the most iconic scenes in movie history and was honored to have sons of the craftsman who had created pieces for the original Ben-Hur on working for her. Avdyushko decided to use the age-old technique of dividing the warring nations into visual teams by color. She was also inspired by details from motorcycle and formula one racers to make the ancient competition more comprehensible. Because the chariot race is a show, she made the costumes of the different factions: the East European, Russian, Arabian, Egyptian, and Roman teams larger than life. “That’s why my racers look a little bit almost Las Vegas-y,” she says. In contrast, Ben-Hur’s (Jack Huston) armor was woven in leather and devised from references found on mosaics. “Each of the teams came to show off,” explains Avdyushko, “Ben-Hur didn’t come to show off. He came to win or to die.”
Ben-Hur is in theatres today, August 19, 2016, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.