In the shadow of period costumes
Ask people outside of the industry to name a Costume Designer. Chances are they will name an Oscar winning Costume Designer… therefore a designer who did period or fantasy costumes at some point.
The common misconception is that being a Costume Designer on a contemporary fiction doesn’t require as much skills as designing for a period fiction.
Yet the primary function of designing costumes (contemporary and period ones) is to tell a story and bring fictional characters to life.
“People often dismiss contemporary work in costume design, even though designers put as much research and thought into it as they would in period.” Alice Friedberg
So let’s find out why contemporary costumes are not as much well-respected by the industry as period costumes and let's appreciate the skills required in any case.
1. Period costumes will stand to define specific codes of a time and environment VERSUS Contemporary costumes are a combination of subconscious details that will define something about the character or the story.
The pink, high-waisted classic but see-through underwear of the opening scene of Lost in Translation announces the particular melancholic, dull and innocent aesthetic of the film. This simple piece of clothing remind us something about youth, romance and loneliness.
Charlotte’s wardrobe lacks of color reveals a character who chooses to hide from attention. She blends into the room like a chameleon which emphasis her loneliness inside her relationship with her husband. It also subconsciously brings us to see her as a weak and neutral character compared to the more colorful and brash characters she interacts with.
2. Period costumes are more often made from scratch VERSUS Contemporary costumes are sourced in stores, charity shops or our own closets.
While reading reviews about Gus Van Sant's movie Elephant, I came across the fact that costumes were not “real costumes” as they sometimes used the teenagers own clothes playing in the film. I found that very ironic. Gus Van Sant's films are about un-styled "normal" characters, authenticity and hyper-realness yet his aesthetic is very much controlled and sophisticated… and that’s what I actually fundamentally love about movies !
Isn't it the magic of cinema ? Creating a reality within a frame in relation to artificial lights, sounds, spaces and costumes. As a person working behind cameras, I’m not naive about the fact that the costumes were most-certainly not randomly chosen by the protagonists of the film.
Maybe you don’t remember every details of the film but you surely remember John’s yellow t-shirt with a black bull printed on it. I don't know if the yellow was chosen to symbolize something particular cause it could refers both as the "angelic" or "treater" character. However the bull clearly resonates with the violence of the act and the legend of the Minotaur. In the Greek mythology, the Minotaur was the creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man dwelt in a maze. In the legend, seven boys and girls were offered as a sacrifice to the creature, pretty much like the seven boys and girls introduced in the film that we will follow through the all-similar and never ending high school’s corridors. John is the only one who knows what is happening.
Is he a victim or a killer ? Isn't it the first question rising in your mind while watching the beginning of the film ?
3. Period costumes mostly shape actor’s bodies as they are supposed to recreate the silhouette of a time and the body’s language of a social status VERSUS Contemporary costumes are being shaped by an actor’s behavior and body.
When costumes are made from scratch, it is easier (in a way) to have the right fit because the costume is made with the actor’s measurements and the design (fabrics, colors, shapes) is created for a specific and a unique body.
Designing a costume from A to Z is obviously a huge work and demands skills and knowledge, although you might have less pressure from the talent and the director. In fact the talent will know that it is made for himself/herself and the director will be less likely to change his mind because he would be conscious about the cost (in time and money) of doing another design. While if you work on contemporary costumes, you might be asked to change design at the last minute either by the talent or the director because buying costumes in stores doesn’t seem as much work as making an entire outfit from scratch.
For this reason, I found that one of the hardest part of being a Costume Designer in contemporary fiction is to make a talent comfortable enough that he/she will trust you to be able to compliment his/her image and to make him/her feel comfortable in his/her body. This is probably less of a problem in period costumes as the talent will understand that he/she has to transform his/her body to fit into the silhouette of the time therefore the discomfort of wearing something that shape and constrain his/her body would be tolerated a bit more than in contemporary costumes.
4. Period costumes demand long research through books and documents from the past to fully understand the codes of a time VERSUS Contemporary costumes are about researching elements in our everyday lives.
In period fictions, unless you are designing costumes for a specific audience who is waiting for a complete transcription of a certain time and place, chances are that you have the freedom to interpret the way people dressed at a certain time for a contemporary audience. I actually believe that this is what makes me enjoy watching certain types of period films. I know this is not necessarily completely accurate but it gives us - people in 2017 - an idea of the dressing codes of a time through our own "2017 eyes" and it also create a certain aesthetic and “romantic” vision of this time. However if you are working on a contemporary fiction with characters coming from a specific background, you’ll have to be very well informed and have good sources about this background. Otherwise you might fall into a fake transcription which might lead to create “cliché” characters.
One of my favorite activity is to sit down at a cafe and watch people walking in the street. I guess this is definitely a cliché coming from a Frenchie since all of the bars and cafe in Paris have their seats facing the street instead of facing each others… so watching people is a national sport ! Anyway, most of the time I find this much more inspiring than going to a fashion designer exhibition. Without any surprise, that’s also what Costume Designer Melissa Toth Kuhn likes to do.
For Manchester by the sea, Costume Designer Melissa Toth Kuhn immersed herself in New England. She really spent time there to understand how people dress and she even found a local photography exhibition about the local fishermen. She then realized that lots of people were wearing t-shirts and sweat-shirts with local shops name on it so she asked pubs and shops owners in Manchester to use their commercial t-shirts in the film. And so forth her work required extensive research about people from our present time in a very specific area. This is not the type of research that she could have done through internet or books. She had to get out there and talk to people.
That’s actually a part of our job that I love. When I worked on the action show The Way (directed by Camille Delamarre) for StudioCanal, I even took a class of Viet Vo Dao so I could ask the teacher to teach me how to tie the belt properly and what was the meaning of the kimono (the heroes are practicing this martial art in the show). The information he gave me were way more detailed than the ones I could have read on internet and I was more comfortable trusting him than Wikipedia. At the end, we didn’t use Viet Vo Dao kimonos because the Director wanted a different aesthetic rather than the real thing.
For Manchester by the sea, Melissa Toth Kuhn says that she would prefer that the costumes she designed remain unnoticed (interview here). That’s an interesting statement that really explains why contemporary costume design is rarely on the spotlight : sometimes good costumes are seeking to be really authentic and not drag attention away from the character.
5. Apart from dealing with hire costume companies only, Costume Designers working on a period piece would have better chance to be able to create lead costumes from scratch. VERSUS majority of contemporary costumes are sourced from what's already existing.
(Which is also a really interesting challenge because bigger budgets don't necessarily mean better costumes.)
Yet creating enough diversity in order to distinguish characters can be tricky in contemporary costumes. This brings Costume Designers to be focused on details rather than if they were able to choose different garment types for each of the characters and create their wardrobes from scratch.
“Photographer Hans Eijkelboom has spent more than 20 years cataloging the ways that globalized culture manifests through apparel. Since the early 1990s, Eijkelboom has surreptitiously photographed pedestrians in urban settings, for no longer than two hours in each location. The resulting image grids reveal not only the way styles fluctuate over time but also the broader assimilation of street fashion into a kind of homogenized transnational monoculture. In short, the unhindered flow of global commerce has left us all wearing the same thing.” (full article here)
In my article about Big Little Lies, I talked about Costume Designer Alice Friedberg’s work. In her interview she explains how she built the wardrobe of each women from songs given by the director Jean-Marc Vallée. What I really loved in her work is the fact that we understand the different styles and personalities through each character’s wardrobe. This is not necessarily an easy work as they are all some kind of archetypes of white (or mixed for Zoë Kravitz), straight, rich, educated women and mothers leaving in a posh town in California. In this sense I imagine that Alice Friedberg needed to dive deep down in each of their character’s personalities, values, powers, social status and bodies to have such a beautiful diverse result, which is exactly what’s great about contemporary costume design.
To conclude (sorry for the length !) I would never want to put us, costume designers, against each others. I believe that producers, directors and actors still need to get educated about our jobs (in fact the entire costume department !) and the skills they require in order to be fully respected by our industry. I also feel like the costume design world is incredibly competitive today and that we should help each others and work together instead of comparing our work and abilities.
As creative people, we all have our reasons to have chosen this industry. We also have different sensitivity and interests so there should not be a unique way to achieve good costume design. So let’s stand together and appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses !
(Also please let me know if you want to shoot Twiggy's biopic, that's my dream.)