Costume Design and Character

By Anna Wyckoff,  October 6, 2009

Caught between the obsession with celebrity and the undeniable allure of fashion, the title of costume designer evokes a certain glamour. While conjuring beauty is one component of the job description, a more exacting definition might place a costume designer between the psychologist and sociologist, articulating their observations not in words, but in the three-dimensional language of clothing.

Costume design is an expression of the essential nature of a character and the era he or she inhabits. A person’s attire communicates many things; at first glance we learn time period, social status and ascertain if the world they inhabit is fantasy or reality. At closer examination more subtle details are revealed- a character’s psyche, their motivations, and how they want to be perceived. As Mark Twain famously commented, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Pictured right: Costume Design for “GI Joe” by Ellen Mirojnick, Illustrations by Christian Cordella.

We spoke with several distinguished members of the Costume Designers Guild to consider the interplay between costume and character.

Ellen Mirojnick
The Future Is Now

Designer Ellen Mirojnick is intensely aware of time, place, and cultural significance. “I don’t live in the past,” she says, “I live very much in the future.” It is this perceptiveness that informs her costume design.

Mirojnick recently had the unique opportunity to revisit Gordon Gekko, the character she helped make an icon two decades ago. Few personalities have been assimilated into the public conscious the way Gekko has. With his slick hair, suspenders, and strong-shouldered suit, he became the physical embodiment of corporate culture. In the sequel to the 1987 film “Wall Street” Mirojnick deliberated over the “double-trick” of reinventing an icon that has accepted his status and re-imagined himself. Underscoring her design is an acute awareness of public perception and symbology. She depicts, through clothing, the journey Gekko has taken and the evolution during what Mirojnick terms the “Gilded Money Age in New York,” at the end of Summer into Fall 2008.

In another recent film “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” Mirojnick reimagines the ubiquitous comic book. She describes her direction as “not sci-fi” but rather “real soldiers fighting real things.” Using the dialect of imagery that is the uniform combined with what the public recognizes as the brand, she transforms G.I. Joe from an American hero to a global hero through camouflage, artic wear, scuba wear, and liquid armor. Her imagination was only limited by time. “I could have thrown it even further into the future, frankly,” she reflects, “but we had a very short prep time.”

Marlene Stewart
A Fluency in Fantasy

In “Night at the Museum,” designer Marlene Stewart used period details tempered with fantasy to create the historic characters populating the film. Because of the film’s fantasy/action genre, she chose to be evocative rather than literal. “You have a lot more freedom to express,” she says, “You don’t have to stay within the limitations of historical accuracy, you can be more interpretive. You can play…”

Throughout the process Stewart continually refined characters, balancing her vision with the director’s and the studio’s. She developed a visual vocabulary using photorealistic sketches in order to communicate and initiate dialogue about the characters. Also, she considered many technical issues in her design, particularly the stunts a character might have to perform. While the design problem was challenging, Stewart notes, “It was the sort of movie you have a lot of fun with.”

Stewart used an entirely different attitude towards fantasy in the 2008 action/satire/comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Given the film’s satirical frame of reference, she “pumped everything up…blew it out of proportion in an almost surreal way.” Her design factored both 70’s “Superfly” and war films like “Apocalypse Now.” She also decided how each character should wear their uniform and carry their gear based on their personality. Punctuating the hyper-reality and absurdity of the principals, Stewart designed highly realistic looking costumes for the background. Shown right: Illustration of the Horus Guard in “Night at the Museum,” illustrated by E. J. Krisor, photo courtesy Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation; pictured below, right: the cast of “Tropic Thunder,” courtesy Dreamworks Pictures.

Catherine Adair
Color Value

The episodic format presents a unique costume challenge, but designer Catherine Adair has perfected her approach to the television comedy/drama “Desperate Housewives.” Now in its sixth season, she describes the characters as sexy friends in a similar socioeconomic bracket who reside on the same small town street. Shown right: “Desperate Housewives, Season 4,” photo courtesy ABC Studios and Cherry Productions.

While Adair makes the occasional period insinuation, the show’s style is dominated by modern garments. In a single episode, a principal character has between nine to ten changes, multiplied by about twenty-three episodes this amounts to about two hundred and thirty costume changes per character per season. Viewers are delighted by style they can relate to, sometimes recognizing pieces they own or can purchase. Adair mixes in garments of her own design as well as vintage apparel to create a world that is just “a little bit out of the ordinary.”

In order to maintain the individuality of each character’s personality, Adair employs an intricate strategy of color and surface texture. She explains, “The pinks I use on Bree are different than the pinks I use on Gabrielle. And the surface treatments of those colors are sometimes different. I may use silk charmeuse on Bree, but in the pink I would use a cashmere sweater in a baby pink.” She contrasts this saying, “Gabrielle wears silk charmeuse in hot pink or fuchsia or magenta, but Susan would only wear a dusty pink or grayish pink or lavender pink.” Not only does Adair use color in this subtle way she also employs texture, grain of fabric, prints or lack of prints, and embellishments as indicators of specific characters. One of the dilemmas she faces is sometimes falling in love with a garment but discovering it is “too Susan to be Bree and too Bree to be Susan, and the color’s Gabrielle’s, but it’s not practical enough for Annette.” But having a strict framework is her tool for ensuring that despite the relentless schedule and abundant wardrobes, each character remains distinctive. “…At the end of the day we have to be character driven,” Adair adds, “That’s what makes us costume designers.”



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