Importance of Clothing in Film: Breakfast at Tiffanys

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is, of course, one of the most iconic films for fashion of all time. It brought us the little black dress and the conviction that anyone can pursue their dream of being a New York socialite no matter how unlikely and have an oddly great time in the process.

The story of the film’s costumes, however, is one of legendary Hollywood revenge. Just like in Hepburn’s earlier film Sabrina, Givenchy had been hired to design her gowns. After all, Hepburn was a former model of his, and he loved the idea of a rising star showing off his clothes. Givenchy became, of course, the creator of the little black dress for which Breakfast at Tiffany’s is so famous.

Sabrina, however, had led to cruel results for Givenchy, when Edith Head, the costume designer who hadn’t designed all of the costumes (or any of the real standout show pieces used in the Paris sequences) won an Oscar for Givenchy’s work and never acknowledged his part in the film’s look. The studio even helped her cover it up! So when it was time for Head and Givenchy to work on the same project again, Givenchy made a point to protect his interests. Head’s credit line on the film wound up being merely “wardrobe supervisor,” which was a huge demotion for her.

Don’t feel too bad for Head though, not only did she win more Oscars than any other woman and garner an amazing thirty-four nominations in her career, she got her first costume design job in film using sketches she’d borrowed from someone else!

Luckily we can all borrow the idea of the little black dress from this classic film, and there’s truly no better time than now, with the current resurgence of interest in late-50s and early 60s vintage looks thanks to the current crop of Hollywood period pieces, which should ensure that sophisticated simplicity is a major fashion statement for some time to come.

Importance of Clothing in Film: The Golden Compass

While The Golden Compass, based on the first of the books in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, was not a huge box office hit and suffered from some negative reviews thanks to a critical detail left out of the ending, it was a gorgeously designed film and a spectacular showcase for costumes influenced both by the Art Deco period and the increasingly popular “steampunk” aesthetic.

With looks that range from the slinky evening gowns of a woman with political ambitions to the fur-lined parkas and goggles of adventurers, The Golden Compass does a magnificent job of showing up a full society in its wardrobe choices, including rich and poor, children and adults. It’s a look that also makes us yearn for the past, while speculating about the future.

While steampunk wasn’t a part of the mainstream lexicon at the point The Golden Compass was shot, it was an idea that sci-fi fans and culture buffs have been enamored with for some time. What would the Victorian era have looked like if it had high-tech, steam-based machinery, including airships? How would history have evolved from that point? Steampunk is a way of fusing technologies, real and imagined, with the elegance and formality of the past. It was a concept the film, which starts at an alternate universe version of Oxford University, latched onto brilliantly.

Despite some fantastic imagination and special effects, it seems unclear whether the other two films in the book trilogy will be made. With challenging and controversial themes about religion (the books are, in many ways, classifiable as fan-fiction based on Milton’s Paradise Lost) and a rather adult narrative that is told through the lives of children, His Dark Materials was always an odd choice for a Hollywood film that was destined to alienate fans as some plot elements were watered down. But even if those fans didn’t get the movie magic they hoped for, they still got to see a fantastic glimpse — thanks to the costumes — of the world Pullman created.

Importance of Clothing in Film: Making it Authentic

One of the trickiest things about the art of costume design for movies and television is that it’s not just about constructing fabulous garments or putting together outrageous outfits. The costume designer is also charged with putting together outfits that reflect the way real people dress and making sure they don’t look like costumes.

Even for designers working in modern settings where this may seem no more complicated than a trip to the mall, the task is complex and requires making sure clothes fit the color palette of the film, look lived in and give the right subtle cues about a character — from fit to style. Clothes that are too tight say one thing about a character; clothes that are too loose say another. And without a doubt, something perfectly tailored will help any character, and any person, project an air of success. The trick of costume design is often to figure out how to let the imperfections in a character’s wardrobe shine.

For those designers working in historical contexts, the great challenge is to make clothes look authentic and not like costumes. One prime example of this was in Master and Commander, where the wool used to create military uniforms had to be distressed by exposure to seawater and salt in order to make the costumes look plausible.

Some costume designers take a different tact though, going more with what the audience expects to see more than what is historically accurate. The gowns worn by the emperor’s sister in Gladiator are a prime example. Although they borrowed from ancient Roman fashion, they were very modern and looked more like Grecian-influenced casual wear and evening gowns than anything that would have been worn at the time. The audience was happy to accept this in the wake of other, more accurate costuming for other film characters. In fact, these dresses helped provide a point of access for viewers who felt they might not otherwise be interested in such a story.

Importance of Clothing in Film: The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button

One of this year’s leading Oscar contenders is The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button, a heart-wrenching story that spans 80 years. While the film’s chronology is explicitly bracketed by 1918 and Hurricane Katrina, large swathes of the film rely on passing historical references, music and, of course, fashion, to help the audience get its bearings. Jacqueline West is the lead designer on the film, and some of her costume sketches and early test photos are available on the film’s web site.

West’s costumes don’t just help the audience locate moments of the film in time; they help to delineate character by emphasizing class, age (a constantly shifting ground between body and mind in the narrative) and occupation. One key dress even had its vibrant red enhanced electronically after filming to make it the centerpiece of a highly charged moment of romance and desire.

While all of the film’s period clothes are delightful, perhaps the most interesting work comes in the costumes worn by Benjamin and Daisy. West has not just had to reflect decades of fashion evolution but also the evolution of personal style. Body conscious clothes for the adult Daisy who retains the sensibilities of a dancer even once she can no longer perform is just one key example, while blue remains a dominant color in Benjamin’s wardrobe even after he is no longer wearing the peacoat emblematic of his service aboard a tugboat drafted into WWII.

Where the movie’s costume design really succeeds is in the degree to which is makes sure its clothes looked lived in as opposed to costume-like. It’s easy to imagine pieces in various character wardrobes as a favorite sweater or a dress worn so much it is no longer retaining its shape quite right. Even a series of pajama and robe ensembles worn by Elizabeth, while looking expensive, also look slept it.

West could be a major contender for an Oscar for her costume design. While it’s less showy than the ornate work of a film like The Duchess, the tasks it was charged with in the film are, in some ways, more challenging, especially when the modern eye understands most of the clothes shown on screen. Certainly, it’s a fantastic study in the vocabulary of wardrobe.

Importance of Clothing in Film: Hairspray

The movie Hairspray is about a lot of things, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that it was originally a John Waters movie that inspired a Broadway musical and then became an entirely different film altogether. Aside from music, Hairspray is about everything from race relations to loving yourself at any size, and fashion plays a huge role in this timeless hit.

Set in 1962, the plot follows Tracy Turnblad on her mission to become a local teen celebrity. What’s great about Tracy is that when she sees things that aren’t fair or right, she just doesn’t get why they’re like that, and she just marches right past the roadblocks that are set up for her. Declaring that the 50s are over and it’s time for change, Tracy and her friends find success, happiness, love and justice through song and dance.

With vibrantly colored costumes as well as a range of unique pastels, Hairspray does an admirable job of showing off early 60s styles that look great on everyone regardless of whether they’re a size 4 or a size 24. Shawl collars , keyhole details on dresses and fitted waists with a flared skirt are all looks that work well on most figures, because they focus on enhancing curves not disguising size.

Accessories are also an important part of the Hairspray look. While a beehive might not be fashionable today, sparkly barrettes in a more modern hairstyle certainly are. Fashionable ballet flats and a good clutch purse (not convenient, but always cute) can help make the look. So can bangle bracelets and subtle, natural makeup choices.

While the two film versions of Hairspray will be with us forever, Hairspray the Broadway musical closes in early 2009, and there’s a special something about seeing Tracy’s story live and onstage. For one thing, the costumes are even more over the top than in the film, with brighter colors and a whole lot more sparkle. If you can catch it, you should.

Importance of Clothing in Film: The Lord of The Rings

Peter Jackson’s *The Lord of the Rings trilogy* was one of the most massive film undertakings of all time in terms of cast, crew and special effects. The costumes for the three-part project, designed by Ngila Dickson, were no exception, with an average of 150 pieces created for each cultural group represented in the films (start counting, there are more than you think — two types of elves, hobbits, men, Sauron’s armies, etc.). Each costume grouping provided a short hand way to inform us about the wearers’ culture by the colors and styles used and also by the condition of the garments in particular. While the elves were always bright and shining, most of the other costumes had to look lived in, and in many cases, fought in.

While it’s hard for many people to imagine how such elaborate costumes from a fantasy movie can influence the clothes we wear without making them look ridiculous, The Lord of the Rings has a palpable influence in today’s fashion choices, especially if you look at the costume design work done for Tolkien’s elves.

Designed with an art nouveau influence, the costumes for the elves in The Lord of the Rings have several details you can apply to your own wardrobe. Elves’ colors are natural and echo that of the forest ; look for greens and browns, but also jewel tones like blues and purples. If you remember Galadriel, you’ll know white is also appropriate. Remember that elves wear natural fabrics, so look for clothes that move well and are flowing — cotton, linen, wool, silk and even velvet (usually made from synthetics these days) are all good choices. Clothes that echo the elves fashion of The Lord of the Rings should be body conscious but easy to move in and have lovely details such as burnout designs in velvet, subtle beading or woven patterns, or cuts and trims that echo leaves and other shapes found in nature.

No matter how different our world is from that of The Lord of the Rings, the films’ costumes were designed to look as real and lived in as possible, meaning that while their source may seem impractical, inviting their influences into your own wardrobe is easier than you think.

Importance of Clothing in Film: Twilight

Twilight, the wildly popular vampire teen romance novel, comes to the big screen as one of the most anticipated films of the year. Like all vampire stories, Twilight is absolutely about beauty, which means fashion matters whether you want to look like Edward, everyone’s dreamy, undead boyfriend, or Bella, the lucky girl he falls in love with.

Because so much of Twilight takes place in high school, costume designer Wendy Chuck was sure to use the brands teens crave, featuring things like Levi’s , Guess, Miss Sixty and G-star, while also mixing vintage pieces with new looks. Chuck has also worked hard to make sure that the wardrobe for the vampires enhances their otherworldly beauty, relying on blues and grays to give the film a consistently dark look.

But make no mistake, these vampires aren’t Goths. Here the undead go for classic tailoring with colors and silhouettes that, while modern, also wouldn’t be out of place fifty years ago.

All the vampires in the world of Twilight aren’t as pleasant as pin-up boy Edward Cullen. This group of nomad vampires takes on an edgier look, while still avoiding vampire clichés of velvet and black. Earth tones and an edgier, mismatched look define the style of the nomad vampires, but their clothes are still simple.

For Bella, Edward’s mortal love, Chuck made sure to include touches of delicacy to her teen wardrobe, adding flowered embroidery and other feminine motifs to her costumes. Like the vampires in Twilight, Bella’s look is about letting her natural beauty shine through. Clothes in the world of this film are used to accentuate beauty, not create it.

Unlike many film looks, getting Twilight style for yourself is easy, because of the number of affordable, off-the-rack pieces that went into the design concept. That said, Edward has a few custom pieces and does dress up for Bella’s prom, showing up in a Gucci jacket. Luckily, with Chuck’s sense of style and the fantastic world of Twilight as a guide, you don’t have to live forever to figure out how to dress fabulously.

The Importance of Science Fiction Fashion

Everyone knows that science fiction film and television invariably spawn lots of t-shirts that are cool with geeks. (“Han Shot First” and “Republicans for Voldemort” are just two examples.) The sci-fi genre also has a lot to say about fashion — both mainstream and the avant garde.

From high-tech fabric to body-hugging cuts, science fiction fashion often offers a viewpoint on where we think we’re going. While the body suits in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century may look ridiculous to us as clothes, they’re not much different than many high-tech outfits currently designed for running and other workouts.

But as much as science fiction fashion is often about the presumed future, it’s also often about the now. The miniskirt uniforms in the original Star Trek are just one great example. Miniskirts were high fashion when Star Trek first launched on the airwaves, and clothing the women of the show in them wasn’t just about giving the guys watching at home space babes to look at. The miniskirt was a symbol of the empowered woman.

Science fiction fashion also often speaks to the past, with many films and movies viewing space as a sort of wild west. Both Star Wars and the cult-hit Firefly followed this model and brought us characters dressed in waistcoats, long-suit jackets and fitted pants tucked into boots, in a way that proves all fashion trends manage to come around again in their own time. Meanwhile, the BBC hit Torchwood, features a lead character who always wears a WWII-era British greatcoat.

When it comes to science fiction fashion, Firefly utilized another popular trope, by viewing the future as a world with a distinctly non-western cultural influence. With that in mind, Firefly showcased bright colors and clothes based on many forms of traditional Asian dress including kimonos , sarees and cheongsams, all of which are increasingly seen influencing western fashion as Asian nations gain economic and cultural strength.

Science fiction fashion isn’t just for geeks. Rather it can show anyone interested in fashion history where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going, although not necessarily in that order.