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FIDM’s ‘Art of Motion Picture Costume Design’ knows that clothes play a big role

Question: Would Rita Hayworth’s performance as “Gilda” have been as mesmerizing if she hadn’t danced in that skin-tight, Jean-Louis-designed, black satin dress that undulated in the caress of the spotlight?

Answer: Not on your life.

Costume design is a treasured art that has been invaluable to cinema since its inception. Each practitioner’s passion and research help lift a character off the screenwriter’s page, transforming words into flesh -- and cloth. One sketch can transport viewers back in time or give them a tantalizing glimpse of the future. In the creation of a costume, fashion trends can be forged. (How many women worked the “Annie Hall” look that Ruth Morley created for Diane Keaton in the ‘70s?)

For the last 18 years, the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s Museum & Galleries has paid homage to the creativity of the costume designer. The Institute’s annual exhibit, “The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design,” opens Tuesday and will feature approximately 100 costumes from more than 20 films released in 2009. The exhibit itself is a work of art, taking 50 people a full year to produce.

Here’s a sample of the films included: “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (designer Ellen Mirojnick), “Star Trek” (Michael Kaplan), “Sherlock Holmes” (Jenny Beavan), “A Single Man” (Arianne Phillips) and “The Soloist” (Jacqueline Durran). Also included are pieces from four of the five designers nominated for this year’s Academy Awards: “Bright Star” (Janet Patterson), “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (Monique Prudhomme), “Nine” (Colleen Atwood) and “The Young Victoria” (Sandy Powell). (The fifth nominee, “Coco Before Chanel,” designed by Catherine Leterrier, wasn’t selected for the exhibit.)

FIDM always showcases the previous year’s Oscar winner, in this instance 2008’s “The Duchess,” designed by Michael O’Connor. On display will be two dresses worn by Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and one costume worn by Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey.

A fun tidbit: FIDM ensures that mannequins are authentic to the proportions of the actors, so you’ll be able to measure yourself against your favorite celebs. FIDM founder Tonian Hohberg, who is also a member of the board of directors for the FIDM Museum & Galleries Foundation, notes that one of the most attention-grabbing costume displays was from the film “Titanic.” The clothes, designed by Deborah Scott, were “extremely popular to the point of adding extra security,” Hohberg says.

We had a chance to interview two nominees for costume design for the 82nd annual Academy Awards, which will be telecast on March 7. Both are two-time Academy Award winners, have been featured in previous FIDM exhibits and have pieces in 2009’s collection, as well. One is Powell, whose Academy Awards were garnered for “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator.” She also dazzled with the colorful period pieces featured in “The Young Victoria,” the love story of England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Look for her work in the film “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The other is Atwood, whose wins were for “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Her talents are also featured in Tim Burton’s upcoming “Alice in Wonderland” (her eighth collaboration with the director). She’s currently working on “The Tourist,” starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. Her work in “Public Enemies” and “Nine” will be featured in FIDM’s exhibit this year.

Sandy Powell

What’s key about the art of costume design for film?

What you are doing is helping to create a character. You’re hoping to make a character believable. You also want to make it visually work with the rest of the film. I think it’s equally important that costumes don’t distract. I think it would be wrong if someone went to a film, and all they could remember were the costumes.

Let’s chat about your breathtaking costumes for “The Young Victoria.” The palette is richly colorful. Did you do this to counter the image of her latter years when she was famous for wearing black exclusively?

The point was that it was young Victoria. The young life most people don’t think of Victoria as having. A lot of the colors, yes, were chosen to accentuate her youth. The other reason was that she had so many dresses in the film, it’s a nice way to differentiate among costumes. Also, I like using color.

Did you have access to any of the royal archives for research?

Yes! I went to Kensington Palace where her actual clothes are archived. I handled the wedding dress, the coronation robe and several day dresses. It was fab! It always helps to see how something is constructed. What was most interesting was the size of it -- it was minute. Like child’s clothing. Victoria was only about 4 foot 9! We think of her as being dumpy and round, but actually she was well-proportioned when she was young.

Is there anything else, in researching Victoria and Albert, that you thought might not be public knowledge?

She kept very extensive diaries, and she described in detail things like her coronation garments and their layers. She actually designed her wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ gowns too.

One of the most striking costumes is strangely not one of Victoria’s, but one of Albert’s. It’s the moment when Albert enters confidently into the palace with his two dogs. He steals the scene. How did you create that effect with so little color?

In the script the scene is written, “Albert enters looking as handsome as the dawn.” It’s the moment she looks at him and decides she does like him. To me, that was the most important moment for his costume. I decided to make it as if he had been riding with a great pair of boots. Menswear in that period was sexy. It was all about making Rupert Friend [Albert] have the perfect fit -- tight pants, riding boots, a nice jacket.

Do you get to keep costumes from any films?

From “Shakespeare in Love” I kept some of Judi Dench’s pieces. I have a little archive of my own.

What’s been a favorite film of 2009?

I loved “Bright Star.” I loved how unconventional it was.

What films from the past inspired you?

Well, I always look at other people’s work. Edith Head and Adrian. I admire Piero Tosi, who worked with Visconti. I love “The Leopard” and, in my early years, “Death in Venice.”

And, I must ask, where do you keep your Academy Awards?

They’re on my bookshelf to help keep my big books from falling over.

Colleen Atwood

What does it take to prep costumes for a film?

When you make costumes for a film or period films, it takes about four-and-a-half months. You start with the script and idea, meet with the director and see how he’s envisioning it. And then there’s research and development. The next stage is sketching ideas and pulling images for research. At the same time, you’re sourcing fabrics. A lot of times, like in “Alice,” I printed my own, which I call textile development. You start working with your dyer and agers and looking for stuff to put on extras. As the cast comes into place, you start fittings and working with them, building characters.

What was your favorite costume in “Nine”?

I loved Daniel Day-Lewis’ suit. It was a costume that had to work in every scene. It was a special challenge to get it right for him. It’s odd that I’d pick that, but it was the process of working with Daniel . . . it’s something I’ll always remember. Another was Judi Dench’s dance number costume. We wanted it to be for an older woman and something sexy . . . it was a lot of fun for me.

Do you think films are generous with costume budgets?

No! You always have to give up a few things you’d like to have, but that’s one of the challenges.

How has it been to be honored by FIDM?

I’m very proud of FIDM supporting us as costume designers and also the school they built. They are very diverse and forward-thinking.

Have you kept any of the costumes you’ve designed?

Sadly, I’m not allowed to keep costumes.

What movies from the past have inspired your designs?

“The Wizard of Oz,” “The Leopard” and “The Red Shoes” -- three dramatic, historical films.

What films from 2009 did you admire for their design?

“The Young Victoria,” “Amelia” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

Why become a costume designer as opposed to a fashion designer?

They’re both interesting and creative fields. But costume design allows you to do a different type of research and create characters, whereas in fashion, you create an image and clothing for the masses.

Just out of curiosity, where do you keep your Academy Awards?

They’re in a little cubby close to the laundry room!

julie@julieneigher.com


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