Costume Designer (Film)

The relationship between cinema and fashion has developed along two main paths, but with different chronologies. First, film costume designers influenced fashion, with trends going from films to real life. Later, it was the fashion designers who influenced film; either indirectly (when the cinema adopted their creations) or directly (when fashion designers became costume designers). If until the origins of the seventh art, the birth of a film star often was linked to a style of clothing, a distinctive detail, or a particular hairdo (e.g. Theda Bara and her exotic outfits), the profession of costume designer has had a life of its own only since the 1920s, and it was only in 1948 that they first gave an Oscar for costume design. But within ten years, every movie studio deserving the name had a costume department, and it played an important part in the success of a film. The first costume designer was Howard Geer at Paramount Pictures, which employed 200 professional tailors. Then — just to name a few — Edith Head and Travis Banton worked at Paramount, Charles LeMaire at Fox, Milo Anderson at Warner Bros, Jean-Louis Berthauld at Columbia, and Walter Plunkett at MGM. Compared to a fashion designer, a costume designer must take into account several specific factors, as a film costume is at the same time — as Roland Barthes wrote in his Système de la Mode — a “humanity” (it enhances the plausibility of the character) and a theme (it underlines the values and symbols that the character represents). Besides being well informed about the history of costume and fashion, a costume designer must be able to communicate through clothing a character’s social position and psychology, he must know the rules of photography and film-making, and be able to work in close relationship with the entire team (he would never design a violet nightgown to be worn in a room painted the same color). The most obvious connection between fashion and the cinema is through the actor who wears particular clothing that gives off an evocative power that makes the public want to dress the same way. Stars such as Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Lauren Bacall created the fashions of Hollywood’s golden age. In the 1930s, Adrian, the costume designer for Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo, sold an evening dress model worn by Crawford in the movie Return to Macy’s, the famous department store. Once on the market, at the same time the movie opened in theaters, it sold more than half a million pieces in one week. Clothing style also contributed decisively to the aura of Audrey Hepburn. Originating as film costumes, some articles of clothing have dictated fashion styles for entire seasons. Examples include the white chiffon dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Elizabeth Taylor’s dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Carol Baker’s baby doll outfit in the movie Baby Doll. The big waves of fashion-revival have started in the cinema, such as Walter Plunkett’s creations for Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland in Gone With The Wind, the costumes designed by Piero Tosi for Ingrid Thulin in The Damned, the 1930s-style mid-calf tweed skirts designed by Theadora Van Runkle for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. The shapes of men’s clothing also have a dialogue with the big screen. It is enough to remember the widespread use of raincoats like those worn by Humphrey Bogart, or the leather jackets worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. There are analogies between fashion and the star system, beginning with the fact that both are artificial constructs based on the aestheticization and display of the body. In this way, cinema provides a formidable stage from which to launch and distribute fashion. Maria Pezzi writes: “The influence of the big screen on costume and fashion cannot be doubted. When, in 1923, the film The Desert Song came out, with Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino and love under tents in the desert, the passion for sheiks and the fashion for barracans was huge, especially in England, causing travel agencies that specialized in trips to Africa to flourish. And when the eccentric Lady Mendl arrived in Egypt, she was delighted to discover that pyramids were “beige,” her favorite color. The world of fashion was alarmed by this psychological dominion of cinema, especially when it realized that girls of good family were rejecting the elegant bathing suits on sale in the sportswear boutiques that the great designers had just opened, opting instead for the scandalous tight wool tight maillots made fashionable by Carole Lombard. And it was even worse when they realized that high society fiancées were rejecting dresses by Lanvin, the queen of wedding gowns, and sending their little dressmakers to the cinema in order to copy Janet Gaynor’s dress in Seventh Heaven, with its three-flounce neckerchief and frilled skirt which opened in the back like a lace fan.” To the few great Hollywood designer names already mentioned, one must add the Europeans, such as the French Antoine Mago (Amanti perduti, Casco d’oro) and the Italians Vittorio Nino Novarese, Milena Canonero, Piero Gherardi, Danilo Donati, Gabriella Pescucci, and Giulia Maffai, who were appreciated all over the world, with some of them winning more than one Oscar. The situation concerning the direct cooperation between designers and the cinema is different. Piero Tosi said that the two worlds are completely separate: “Anyone born a costume designer will never be a fashion designer, and vice versa. I have never seen a great fashion designer creating beautiful costumes.” The Hollywood failure of some celebrated couturiers, such as Chanel, seems to confirm his opinion. Yet, it is difficult to deny that, starting in the 1960s, designers have had a large influence on the big screen, which has more and more often adopted their styles in order to obtain a “reality effect” (see also the social distribution of branded clothing, with its associated status value). In more recent times, some griffes have dressed famous stars or complete films, including Armani (American Gigolo, The Untouchables) and Gaultier (Peter Greenaway’s actors and The Fifth Element). Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders have shot promo-costuming for, respectively, Armani and Yamamoto. Several movies depict the world of fashion and its backstage intrigues, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s Amiche and Blow-Up and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which included 75 designers and top models.