Dressing for the part

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Stylist Team
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Stylist explores the role costume plays in creating a character - not just on-screen but in our own lives too

Words: Collette Lyons, Photos: Rex Features

Thirty seconds. That’s all it takes to make an impression, so the saying goes. When meeting someone for the first time, we form a judgment before they have even had the chance to mumble a single syllable. And this snapshot opinion is based largely on their choice of clothes, and perhaps just as importantly, how they’ve put them together.

Consciously or not, every dressing decision is informed by some sense of what we want to project. Take a job interview; we deliberately choose an outfit we hope portrays the capable and responsible aspects of our personality. Regardless of whether you are a dedicated bohemian at the weekends, you wouldn’t sit across the desk of a potential employer wearing a macramé waistcoat and a skirt made from silk handkerchiefs. The Angelina Jolie dislocated leg look might turn heads at a film premiere, but in an interview situation, the only thing turning will be you. As you are quickly shown the door.

Luckily for us in the real world, we usually get a chance to fix or reverse a faulty first impression (we all own ensembles that have only ever had one disastrous airing). For Jacqueline Durran, Mary Vogt, Albert Wolsky and countless other costume designers for film and theatre, a first impression is sometimes all you have.

This is the subject of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at London’s V&A, which opens on 20 October. Curated by Deborah Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild, it will showcase not only some of the most iconic garments in cinematic history but also the extraordinary degree of thought that went into their creation. Alongside Dorothy’s gingham dress in The Wizard Of Oz and Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain-cum-gown from Gone With The Wind will be an explanation of how every stitch, seam and pleat was designed to convey the psychology of the characters on screen.

ABOVE: Keira Knightley in that dress made for a pivotal scene in Atonement

According to Landis, many people overlook the significance of costume design. “The audience thinks that designers are involved in surface decoration – in making the actors and actresses look pretty. But the beating heart of costume design is the creation of authentic people,” she explains. Just as your clothing choices are so much more than just ensuring you aren’t walking to work naked, so costumes are more than simple scene-setting. A designer is responsible for ensuring that a character’s outfit best displays a sense of who they are, or who they would like to be. As Landis explains: “Movies have to seduce the audience into believing that each and every person had a life before the movie began, a life that will continue after the movie is over. Every actor has a whole wardrobe – whether they wear it over the two hours they’re on screen is irrelevant.”

The thought behind dressing

A psychology degree is not, generally, a prerequisite for the average costume designer, but they do need an intuitive understanding of how a viewer will react to the clothes. Dr Jennifer Baumgartner, psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear, believes that cleverly chosen clothes can impart a story instantly as certain garments provoke immediate assumptions. “Consider the concept of parsimony,” she says. “We often choose the simplest explanation for something. In the case of costumes, clothing allows us to make sense of an individual, based on our associations with what they are wearing.” We assume suits mean city worker, messy hair means disorganisation, while a leather jacket has come to mean rebel.

Dr Baumgartner insists that clothing choices are also a great way to convey characters as a fluid concept rather than something that is fixed. “While some women choose an outfit based on what isn’t in the wash basket, others use clothing as a creative process or a form of expression,” she says. “When we change internally, our external behaviours often follow. Additionally, we like congruence – having the inside and outside matching is important. Without change, we may feel like we are dressing the old self rather than the new one.”

It is easy to recognise the relationship between clothing and personal transition. At some stage or other we all realised it was about time to trade in our torn and faded homage to The Clash for an APC jumper. As painful as it might have been, it was the mature thing to do. Characters also change during the course of a film. Some of them grow up, others suffer tragedy and become depressed and the more fortunate ones come into large sums of money. As Landis explains: “Each person in a film has a character arc – they go on a journey, fall in love, encounter tragedies. And their clothes, as in real life, change along with them.”

Think of Lady Sybil towards the end of the first season of Downton Abbey. Her transition from gentlewoman to female activist is as visually obvious for the viewers as it is shocking for her family, on account of her change of clothes. She walks into the drawing room wearing a vibrant pair of harem pants, instead of the usual corsetry and crinoline, and Dame Maggie Smith’s wonderfully stern Dowager Countess nearly suffers a coronary. Lady Sybil’s turquoise trousers have now become identifiable with her enrolment in the feminist movement.

ABOVE: Judy Garland’s pinafore in the Wizard Of Oz: the fancy dress staple

Mary Vogt, who made the Catwoman outfit in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, also understands the symbolic potential of costume. “Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was always by herself – she hated other people getting close to her, or touching her, so she needed to look mysterious and unapproachable. It was a very simple costume initially – we knew we wanted it to be black and shiny and sexy, but strong, so we chose Latex. When Tim Burton saw it, he said, ‘It needs to have stitches.’ I disagreed at first – but watching the stitches gradually come undone, as the film goes on, makes you feel like she’s unravelling. It was a brilliant visual metaphor.”

Sometimes the colour, cut and shape of an outfit is not merely representative of one person’s internal monologue, but of a pivotal moment in history or an entire era. A fluoro, bat-wing shell suit screams Eighties raver, regardless of who is wearing it. Similarly, the Technicolor revolution that has become synonymous with the mid-20th century, despite it not being a realistic representation, is brilliantly portrayed in Grease (1978).

For Albert Wolsky, who designed the wardrobes for the characters in Grease, colour became synonymous with one of cinema’s most iconic moments. “I started out trying to be realistic,” says Wolsky, “but the director wanted more colour. I ended up thinking, ‘These people are all meant to be in high school and yet they are colouring the grey streaks in their hair. Why the hell am I trying to be realistic? It’s ridiculous!’ So we just went mad with it.”

Good behaviour

And of course some clothes bring out certain emotions. A short evening dress might make you feel daring and glamorous; and a huge jumper feels comfortable and secure. It affects your mood, and shapes how you behave.

Grease’s Wolsky saw a tiny pair of shiny black trousers wield an unearthly power. “Olivia Newton-John couldn’t wait to get into the sexy spandex,” he says. “She hated the goody-goody look Sandy has to wear. When she came out in those tight black spandex pants, the way she walked, the way she behaved – it completely changed,” he says. The bright red heels may have had something to do with it, too. “People like to feel their clothes,” says Wolsky.

“Shoes are so incredibly important, even if they don’t show, as they affect a woman’s walk. An actress can’t be wearing trainers even if their feet are under a huge gown. In one film I did with Cybill Shepherd, called Chances Are, she wouldn’t wear heels if they weren’t in shot. I could tell when I watched it in the cinema.”

According to theatre actress Emma Carter, who recently completed a 10-month tour of Macbeth with the Icarus Theatre, “Being presented with the costume is, for many actors, a great catalyst for developing the intricacies of character and performance. In a production of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, I was playing a character called Vasilissa and one of the things that really helped me to develop the character’s emotional stiffness was a tight, tailored jacket. It forced me physically into a straightened pose. Not only did the physical restriction affect my breathing, stance and vocal quality, but I also looked at the jacket as a piece of armour that helped to shield her from the dislike that she engendered in people.”

ABOVE: The director wanted more colour in Grease – finally Danny’s shirt/ sock combo is explained

Carter seems to have taken lessons from the same school of thought as Nicole Kidman. Another of the costume world’s experts, Deborah Lynn Scott, says: “Nicole Kidman really did transform in The Hours – she said that the costume designer, Ann Roth, gave her a handkerchief to put in her pocket. And from that one tiny thing, the character came.”

That’s the positive psychological effect of clothes. Of course, there’s also a negative side. We all know how it feels to flick through our wardrobes after a weekend countering a hangover with Kettle chips and cans of Coke to decide that whoever invented pencil skirts needs a good kicking. If you think actors don’t occasionally trudge into the costume designer’s office in a similar mood, you’ve been grossly misinformed.

“You do have to be part psychologist,” explains Kym Barrett, who designed costumes for The Matrix and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. “I don’t start designing costumes until the film is completely cast, as you have to make sure things suit specific actors. What are their good and bad points, and how can you accentuate and downplay them? Then, when they come into the costume room, you have to assess how their day has gone. Has someone taken a hideous picture of them with cellulite? Do they feel fat or insecure? Some actresses will take hours to fit, others 10 minutes.”

At the end of the day, though, what the costume designers understand is that clothing can only do so much. Jacqueline Durran was the mastermind behind the costumes in films such as Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “Take the iconic dress from Atonement,” she says, “I made it, then I put it on Keira Knightley. If I’ve done my job properly, it suits Keira. Then it’s how she acts in it, how her hair and make-up works in it and how the cinematographer shoots it.”

Although we might colour our clothes with shades of sentimental value, sometimes we have to accept that a dress is just a dress. The impression you make is down to how you feel in it, what you do in it and where you let it take you.

Hollywood Costume, sponsored by Harry Winston, opens at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW 7 on 20 October. Tickets are available now from The writer flew courtesy of American Airlines