The Relationship Between
Costume and Fashion Design

By Anna Wyckoff,  August 2, 2010

There is a mysterious, almost alchemical formula that renders certain cinematic moments unforgettable, and a small part of that equation involves a costume.

Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly grazes on her breakfast while gazing in the Tiffany’s window, sheathed in an austere black column dress and opera gloves, arrayed in a collar of pearls, a tiny tiara, and dark sunglasses. Marilyn Monroe relishes the breeze from the subway grate that sends the skirt of her pleated white halter hovering skyward, magically at her thighs. Marlon Brando’s Godfather is clad in an impeccable tuxedo with a red rose boutonnière as he finishes business before his daughter’s wedding.

Costume and fashion are easily confused, sometimes the words are used interchangeably, and often one is mistaken for the other. But despite the blur and overlap, they are actually distinct disciplines that flow naturally into each other because they share the common vocabulary of clothing.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines costume as “A set of clothes in a style typical of a particular country or historical period,” while fashion is described as “A popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior.” To put it another way, fashion reflects the current vogue in clothing, and costume uses clothing to evoke a personality to support a plot. For the most part, the purposes of the two mediums differ; fashion is motivated by commerce, while costumes are designed for an actor in a specific role, not for public consumption.

And yet, there’s been a burgeoning trend towards networks and studios licensing products made in the spirit of popular television shows or films. “Glee,” “Hannah Montana,” and “Mad Men” are just a few of the current productions with spinoff clothing collections.

Costume and fashion designers have enjoyed mutual inspiration since the ’20s and ’30s, when Hollywood finally eclipsed Paris as a source of fashion inspiration. In the 1940’s, Adrian glamorized the likes of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford, and both French couturiers and American women followed suit. Many fashion collections refer to films in construction, details, silhouette or attitude. As recently as spring 2010, Donatella Versace was influenced by Colleen Atwood’s “Alice in Wonderland” costumes, and John Paul Gaultier by Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah L. Scott’s “Avatar” costumes.

On the other hand, Costume Designers do not use fashion merely because it looks chic. Consumers purchase brands from Chanel to Nike for complex reasons. Some buyers are drawn to fashion labels because they appeal to how they would like to represent themselves, and others because the brand is a visual indicator for a demographic they aspire towards. A Costume Designer manipulates this sociological nuance through visual language to evoke a personality in a historical context.

Despite reciprocal admiration, the relationship between costume and fashion design has also been underscored with tension. Screen time is such a valuable commodity that when a celebrity wears a designer label in a production, the powerful fashion PR machine capitalizes on this, bombarding the public across all media in order to maximize retail sales. This is not surprising, since celebrities can command millions of dollars for product endorsements, and screen time is considered free advertising. In the past, Costume Designers have often been left out of this equation, having neither the finances nor the time to promote their designs. For instance, Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes for “Bonnie and Clyde” changed fashion and spawned a generation of copycats. But even when a Costume Designer receives this sort of public affirmation, they have rarely benefited financially.

Fortunately, the Costume Designer’s role is becoming more visible. For example, Costume Designer Patricia Field was not overshadowed by her use of name brands in the “Sex and the City” TV series and films. In this fashion-heavy franchise, Field created a symbiotic relationship where certain labels became household names by their presence on screen. But ultimately, it was Field’s unorthodox juxtaposition of garments that made headlines.

Let’s take a look at how three Costume Designer’s Guild members balance the interplay between these two worlds.

Culture and Context

Costume Designer Michael Dennison makes a vital distinction between costume and fashion, noting, “I believe a Costume Designer’s job is to visually tell the story, without the costume becoming the story… while in fashion, the costume is the story.” His film “Eat Pray Love” follows the physical and spiritual journey of Liz, played by Julia Roberts. The locations make an impression on Liz, which Dennison evokes in her clothing, subtly interweaving local fashion and color from each of the four international destinations. In an effort to maintain the reality of a travel wardrobe, pieces are repeated and added.

Dennison articulates New York’s “winter of discontent” through sleek, sharp silhouettes in neutral tones with what he describes as “city accents”–strong slashes of primary color used for punch. The shape releases slightly during autumn in Rome. Dennison employs dolman sleeves and an easier fit in jewel tones inspired by the patina, oxides and eroding stonework of the city. Summer takes place in an ashram in India and Liz is dressed indigenously in palazzo pants and gauzy blouses tinted in soft hues of India’s radiant color palette. The final leg of the pilgrimage is to Bali in spring, and Liz blends into the culture looking relaxed in batik and painted shawls. She has come full circle from the severe, tailored monochrome of New York.

“No choice is arbitrary,” says Dennison. “In one scene Liz is standing against the background of tropical flora and fauna, and I thought, ‘Who could compete against this?’ So I made a Balinese day dress. It is outstanding when she walks into the scene, and her aubergine dress [contrasts] this riot of tropical color.”

Sometimes the very best costume design decisions play out effortlessly as an extension of the character, assuming a supporting role, rather than a featured one.

The Arc of Anonymity

Looking at fashion from a slightly different perspective, Costume Designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb suggests, “it can be dangerous if you are only relying on the media and you don’t dig deeper to see what caused a character to make their decisions. I love referring to things like yearbooks or” Voraciously pouring over uploaded personal snapshots and research books, Larlarb informs her design with details from real life. She considers costume design more than providing wardrobe, she believes it “actually fleshes out the character’s behavior.”

In the film “The American,” Larlarb was faced with a tricky design challenge: she had to make one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars appear to be incognito. “I looked at a lot of men’s fashion designers and many reached out because it was an opportunity to dress George Clooney. There were beautiful things being presented, but none of them were precisely right, because they were about the fashion and not about this character trying to maintain his anonymity.” Larlarb finally settled on a Zegna suit because of its understated quality and beautiful construction. She knew “He wasn’t going to come out in this medieval village and look like James Bond, which was the worry with all the other suits because they were so sharp and fashion forward.”

Her film “Beastly” reconsiders the tale of Beauty and the Beast. In this modern fable, fashion and glossy superficiality are epitomized by central character Kyle, played by Alex Pettyfer, whose elegant designer clothes deepen the distinction between himself and Lindy, his love interest played by Vanessa Hudgens. “We are introduced to Lindy, who breaks all those rules. She is the one character who brings light and color into the room by wearing vintage clothing in Art Nouveau prints and clashing patterns.” Using antifashion as a foil against high fashion, Larlarb expresses the authenticity of her heroine and extends the film’s theme of the triumph of the internal over the external.

A Striking Balance

Few designers balance the worlds of costume and fashion as deftly as Arianne Phillips, who straddles both realms by working in film as a Costume Designer and in fashion as a freelance fashion editor. While she feels contemporary fashion has its place in film, Phillips explains, “Because our job is to help further story and underscore the emotion and develop the character… I prefer to use fashion in film when I feel it is intrinsic to the character.” In “Knight and Day” which stars Tom Cruise, Phillips used Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani to cast Cruise as the embodiment of the all-American man. But in her previous film “A Single Man,” Phillips avoided fashion entirely, relying instead on period clothing and building garments when necessary.

Phillips comments, “The hardest job for a Costume Designer is working on a contemporary film because all the people making decisions about these costumes are above the line: producers, directors, actors. All these people can afford to buy product; they have access to high fashion, which makes people feel like they are experts.” While she describes her experience on “Knight and Day” as “wonderful,” Phillips also remarks that in period film her vision as a Costume Designer is “often more unfettered and pure.”

Her most recent project is entitled “W.E.,” a film by Madonna about the Duchess of Windsor. Phillips is in the midst of researching the period fashion of Vionnet, Dior, and Cartier, delving deep into the recesses of their rich archives, the Louvre, and the Victoria and Albert Museum to recreate the iconic pieces worn by the Duchess. Phillips says of the collaboration, “What this film does between the fashion and film world is phenomenal.”

In Conclusion

Every year, Costume Designers contribute to unforgettable cinematic moments, but it is vital to view their work in the appropriate context. While garments and fashion are crucial components, Costume Designers are ultimately responsible for the creation of credible characters.

This idea runs deeper than the construct of style, and extends to the psychology of how and why clothing is worn. It is Annie Hall in raffish men’s clothes, Lawrence of Arabia garbed as a bedouin galloping across the desert, or Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in a white, tie-front bikini with a knife belt. Because costume design strengthens our connection to characters, it facilitates cinema’s peculiar magic of transporting, enlivening and enriching us.



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