Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  July 25, 2018

Acknowledging The Maker: The Film Costume

By Emma Kelly

Returning to my film costume dissertation over the last number of weeks, I decided to take this blog as an opportunity to revisit the costume designer, one creative mind that was a huge source of interest during my studies and dissertation. It was one area that I had wanted to tackle in greater detail but the topic (and word count) wouldn’t allow for it. I’ve always been fascinated by film costume and the creators, their work and the role their creations play in film both for the actors and most importantly for the viewers, after all film is made to be seen by people. While there have been shifts in the mechanics of their work, how they carry it out and how they create, one of the biggest changes has been their recognition. In the early days of the Hollywood studios, the designers were stars in their own right, their creations era defining. People knew their name. Today it is the actors who garner the most attention. While the creations have their moments to shine, the designer tends to be less known.

A costume designer can be simply defined as “someone who designs costumes for plays and film” (1), a definition which fails to fully capture their wide ranging work, done in the name of telling a story through audio visual means. They are tasked with piecing together elements of the story at hand with material objects. Central to the work of a costume designer are the characters. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis states “The costume designer is responsible for the who (who is the character what can the audience expect from this person) (2).  Despite working within an industry that has seen such change within it and in the world around it, the key components of their work remains unchanged, beginning   with working with the formative texts of film which vary but can typically include the script, screenplay and notes from the director. If it's an adaptation of a novel or play they have the added bonus of a body of text that is known (though adaptation does have its pitfalls). From the pages of written texts, a costume designer draws out the protagonists and brings them to life, dressing an actor with the clothing that befits the character and story. Costume has a twofold responsibility. It must be a key tool in the arsenal of the actor, but it must also be readable by the audience. The garments, as well as the accessories, are tasked with enveloping the actor in their role, as well as the plot and the scenario in which they are acting. Blake Stutesman describes costume as “an object, a literal building that the actor enters, wear or inhabits in order to perform” (3).  Costume affords the wearer the means of connecting with, or embodying their character, connecting with the time, place and events of the film.

The costume designer works across the audio and visual platform of film, though it is in the visual that the designer’s essential role lies. As viewers we have come to understand the language of costume, the garments and what they mean, the use of colour. Each stitch, fold, seam, fabric or colour choice is imbued with meaning, whether it is an emotion required for the scene or a characteristic of the wearer, which is important for both actor and viewer.  Importance of costume relaying information is highlighted by Landis, who calls it “telegraphing information” (4).  This relaying of information through costume is intrinsic in the telling of the story. As movie goers we have learnt to read costume, and have come to associate certain colours, styles, garments with certain characters and characteristics. Responsible for the characters, the designer must ensure the costume is readable, as it is central to our understanding of those we encounter on screen. We recognise costume as the clothing worn on screen or on stage and it plays a key role in our viewing the film, wherever we may find ourselves watching it. Of costume, Nadoolman Landis states “costume adds essential information to the moment of a scene, of a story, to achieve the visual and narrative goal of the film maker.” (5).  Costume dresses the character in clothing that indicates who they are, the time and place, as well as the occupation and characteristics of the character, playing a key role in our understanding of the film. Costume is always present and can step in where the spoken word doesn’t. One example is the costume of John Crowley’s 2015 film Brooklyn, the focus of my dissertation. The creations of Odile Dicks Mireaux relay a wealth of information to us regarding Eilis, the main protagonist, from her personality and her progression as a person to the societies she calls home and the differences that exists between them. One of the elements of the costume is the transition of her wardrobe from Irish to American and it is in line with the old saying actions speak louder than words. This action, undertaken by Mireaux behind the scenes and on screen by Eilis, conveys so much to us about the narrative and key components of it thus helping us to understand what is going on, reaffirming what is said and stepping in where words aren’t spoken.
Costume also works in terms of audio. Our own everyday clothes make sounds as we put them on, move, brush off things and so does costume. The sounds of the costume play a part in our viewing experience. We see a swish of a skirt and we hear it and the same goes for a coat zip, a necklace clasp. Some of these can be purely accidental, included with no prior planning or are planned as a requirement for a scene.

Of film costume and our film viewing experiences, Stella Bruzzi states “you notice what the characters are wearing –the detail, the fabric, the authenticity but in a way that costume becomes an interpretational tool, a means by which character, identity and narrative can be accessed or understood” (6).  In the hands of the costume designer, costume becomes this tool. Beginning with the key texts, the designer sets out garments and accessories for the characters, in line with scene requirements, which help us piece together the characters and their story. Such pieces translate on to the silver screen what was once written on a page or alluded to. The costumer reads the texts, the words and the words that exist between the lines to order to put together the costume. Their creations speak when nothing else is said, they reaffirm what has been said, a visual reminder of particular details such as a character progresses slowly as a person as told through their ever-changing sartorial style. For actors, these piece envelope them in their online screen persona, allowing them to connect with their role. The audio aspect of their work, though not as obvious as the visual aspect, is still important.

In an era where hundreds of films are released on a yearly basis, one thing to remember when we watch such movies is that the costumes don’t just appear. They are made. The little details that we notice such as badges on a jacket or changes in a person’s sartorial tastes don’t just happen. They come about from a creative process, that begin with words in a page that are translating into material goods by a creative mind, who brings to life the characters and their stories and uses costume to tell their story whatever it may be.

(1) Collins Dictionary
(2) Deborah Landis Nadoolman, Film craft: Costume design (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2012)8
(3) Drake Stutesman, "Costume Design, or, What Is Fashion in Film?" Fashion in Film. Ed. Adrienne Munich (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011) 21 
(4) Deborah Landis Nadoolman, Film craft: Costume design (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2012)9
(5) Deborah Landis Nadoolman, Film craft: Costume design (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2012)9
(6) Stella Bruzzi, "Dressing Mildred Pierce: costume and identity across the ages," Screen 54:3 (2013).397.

  • Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, 2015