Take a minute to try to remember the last time you thought about the costumes in a film; surely, something fantastical pops into your head. The infamous yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill ? Sure. Maybe Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz ? For me, it’s always Jean Paul Gaultier‘s futuristic and utterly confounding designs for the otherworldly outfits in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover . Perhaps equally as confounding and impressive were the Genie award-nominated costumes for Canadian auteur Guy Maddin‘s The Saddest Music in the World (costume designer Meg McMillan won the award). Ask yourself this: what kind of shoe would a woman whose fake leg is filled with beer wear? Hmm? According to McMillan, this kind:
Costume design: an unnoticed art?
But these are all examples of films in which costumes take centre stage (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) What of the costume designer in a so-called “realist” film, one dedicated to, as AndrÃ© Bazin would say, “the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality”? Adrienne Munich, scholar of material culture and fashion theory, makes an interesting claim in her edited book Fashion in Film : if a film’s costume designer escapes notice, it is a sign that they are doing their job well. If costumes blend so seamlessly into the character and fiction of which they are a part, then nobody takes notice of the designer. Does this mean an unnoticed designer is an excellent one? Or does it simply excuse easy ignorance of the thankless hard work put in by all those “behind the scenes” film industry types? I had the good fortune to pick the brain of celebrated Canadian costume designer Brenda Broer recently (check out some of her work here) on these and related topics.
The importance of believability
“I couldn’t agree [with Munich] more!” says Broer. “That is what is so exciting about costume design for film and television. Viewers should believe that the character owns their clothes. We launder the clothes like the character would do. We break down the clothing to make it look lived in. This is a multistage process, from washing the clothing several times, sanding fabric to simulate wear, dying the articles with dirt-like shades of brown and grey and weighing down the pockets with bags of rice […] to sag out areas that naturally have lots of use. Running shoes get sanded and scuffed and painted. We use real paint on everything so our masterpieces of grime don’t come out in the wash!”
It seems the importance of believability takes the lead role; in a more “fantastical” film like, say, Beetlejuice (another one of my personal favourites for costumes, which were done by Aggie Guerard Rodgers), it seems irrelevant to the experience of viewership whether the eponymous guy has laundered or scuffed his signature black-and-white striped suit. Indeed, neither he nor his suit really “exist” in the film’s diegesis (or do they?)! But in a subtle, character-driven drama like Cairo Time , on which Broer was the Costume Designer, the understated, elegant, and perfectly complimentary costumes worn by Patricia Clarkson’s character, a middle-aged woman who finds unexpected companionship with a stranger while traveling in a foreign land, work towards creating a sense of authenticity and genuine feeling in the narrative.
Creating personal, fictional fashion
How does that kind of authenticity come about through costumes? “Research,” says Broer. “This is the fun part. You try to sort out what is ubiquitous about a sub-culture.” And again, the careful and thorough ‘processing’ of costumes is integral: “the breakdown artist is invisible behind the scenes in movie making. This artist paints and dyes clothes all day long so that they look worse than when they started. Without their artistry so many types of characters would not be believable: pan handlers, punks, construction workers, adventurers, mechanics, rugby players, fishermen, cowboys, surf instructors, painters, chefs, soldiers, prisoners, and pirates, to name a few.”
That’s quite a cast of characters; and yet, if we take a minute to consider the list, many of these types of character go unnoticed within a film’s fiction (with the exception of pirates, perhaps). To what degree is our ignorance of these types of ‘regular’ characters (and their seemingly ‘regular’ costumes) a significant part of our enjoyment of the fiction? We rely on background normalcy in order to solidify the fiction into which we want to buy. But even though Brenda Broer’s work may, at times, be invested in realism, she, like all artists, also indulges in the fantastical, the un-realistic, the utterly imagined. Asked what some of her favourite costume designs in film are, Broer immediately mentions The Rocky Horror Picture Show (costumes by Sue Blane). Of course, who could forget Tim Curry’s thigh-high stockings and heels? Broer also admires the costumes in True Stories (by Elizabeth McBride), The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (by Monique Prudhomme, whose work I also particularly enjoy), and Appaloosa (by David Robinson, who also recently costumed the incredible Shame , in which the sad and confused Sissy, played by Carrey Mulligan, is perfectly decked out in every scene with the kinds of dilapidated hats, sequined lounge-singer frocks, and faux-fur coats that exactly convey her tristesse ).
Broer’s tips for beginners
Finally, we couldn’t possibly quiz someone as successful in her field as Brenda Broer without teasing out a few tips for beginners. If you’re an aspiring costume designer, “Volunteer,” says Broer. “You meet hundreds of people on a film set and anyone of them could give you a great recommendation for the next paying gig. Contact the Canadian Film Centre for their excellent short film residency program. Another great way to meet costume professionals is through CAFTCAD [The Canadian Alliance of Film & Television Costume Arts & Design]. They have great events all year long and it’s a perfect way to meet all types of costume professionals. Networking is the fastest way to getting jobs in film.”
Even if you’re not an aspiring costume designer, though, CAFTCAD is a great resource for both cinephiles and fashion lovers. A couple of months ago, they held a massive Movie Wardrobe Sale, in which new and vintage clothing that has been used for film/TV costuming was sold to the general public. I attended with a couple of friends, and was overwhelmed by the selection. It took us at least 2 hours to even walk through the space, let alone pick out item to try on. After a full day of browsing and fantasizing myself as a cinematic character, I left with a gorgeous 1960s sleeveless, knee-length green, white, and blue patterned dress that hugs my waist like I’m on Mad Men . And then there’s the most important lesson to learn about costumes: whether you’re a supernatural cinematic character or just a regular gal like me, putting on a particular piece of clothing is always a subtle creation of a fiction. Whether you choose to believe it or not depends on your imagination.
This month Toronto Film Scene is unzipping the mystery surrounding Fashion in Film. Who are the people behind the clothing choices, where in Toronto do they shop and what are some examples of great costuming? We’ll also check in with CAFTCAD, revisit the relationship between Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock and look at films that have inspired fashion trends.