Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Importance of Costumes {Guest post by Alexandra}

Hello! I am so very, very honored to be here today! Maria is one particularly awesome bloggy friend, and I was soooo excited when she asked me to guest post! I spent hours pacing my room figuring out what I was going to write about. I thought about TSP, but ya know, I can do that on The Daydream. So I thought, I’m going to do Something Different.

 Today we are going to discuss Costumes.

Brilliant, no?

I agree.

If you take a glance at my personal video library (bottom shelf of my bookshelf…), you’ll notice that ¾ of my films are costume dramas. Actually, more like 7/8.  I love costume dramas. Duh. I have a whole blog devoted to it.

The gorgeous costumes are often the draw to a fabulous movie. Really, would Percy be quite so awesome sans amazing gold frock (and all the fans say, of course! Hush, you’re ruining my wee lecture)? Would Austen films be Austen films without the Regency fashions? What would Anne be without puffed sleeves?
But do we really always take the time to really study the costumes? More often than not (and here I plead guilty) we barely even look at them. Or we do notice them, but just study them at a surface level.

Do you know that costumes actually tell a story?

As a costume fanatic (and someone who makes costumes myself), I love to study about the process, and what I’ve found is simply fascinating. The role of the costume designer is very important. She has to look not only at the story and the time period and the location and social status of the characters, but she has to get deeper, study each character and figure out whom they are and where they’re going and where they end up at the end of their journey. They use their designs to show the journey of the character.

Costumes are often used to show the emotional journey a character goes through in the course of the story. While we notice changes and choices that the characters themselves make, more often than not if you look closely, you’ll notice the oh-so-subtle wardrobe changes that go with it. Three examples come to mind when I think of this -


- Victoria on The Young Victoria (2009)

I read a fascinating interview with costume designer Colleen Atwood on her designs in The Young Victoria (which if you haven’t seen, by the way, you absolutely MUST). The story follows Victoria’s journey from a manipulated young Princess, controlled for political reasons by everyone around her, emotionally fragile and unsure of herself – to the strong and confident Queen.

In the beginning of the story, she is dressed in frills, with curls and pastel fabrics and lots of embellishment. She resembles “a china doll”, as the power-hungry Sir John Conroy calls her. As the story progresses and she meets Albert, her costumes begin to mature. By the time she has shed herself of the power-hungry leaders around her and becomes queen, she wears simpler, regal gowns in jewel tones, her hair in more mature styles. Without the audience always realizing it, we look at the character differently through this wardrobe transformation.

-Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days (2004)
(you may recognize this dude from Night at the Museum. Just sayin’.)

  So I might have a mini-crush on this character. Juuuuuuuust pointing that out. And yes, I have crushes on many, many characters. So there. Anyway. Where was I. Oh, yes.

In an interview (yes, I love behind-the-scenes interviews. I’ll pick one DVD version over another if there’s a documentary on it!) the costume designer talked about the transformation of Phileas’ wardrobe as his character undergoes a transformation.

In the beginning, Phileas is highly eccentric, but also very proper and stuffy. He’s a bit snobbish and always perfectly on schedule. Through the many bumps and hardships he endures on his journey around the world, his character slowly transforms into a more laid-back character that’s learned to enjoy life and the ride through it, ending with their arrival back in London, where he’s in lighter colors and more flowing clothing. Also he is most noticeably without his cravat.

Now, while the costume accuracy purist in me shudders at the major no-no that is Being Out in Public Sans Cravat (Percy would be horrified), it works here, one because it’s a Disney movie so we don’t expect accuracy (why is that? Dunno…) and two just because it works for the story. Same goes for John Thornton sans cravat and coat at the last scene in North and South. The scene is so stinking gorgeous you forgive all that inaccuracy stuff. Anyway.

-Maria in West Side Story (1961)

So WSS isn’t costume drama, persay (well, yes, it is – the fifties are vintage by now. :-P), but there was a very dramatic example that I picked up on last time I watched it. I don’t know if it was intentional, but it stuck with me.

In the beginning of the story, Maria is complaining about her dress she is wearing to the dance. It is white, and white, according to Maria, “is for babies”. She begs Anita to at least dye it red, which presumably she considers a more “grown up” color.

If you pay close attention, you notice touches of red in her wardrobe (beginning with the red sash at the dance where she meets Tony – a subtle premonition that meeting him launches her “coming of age”?), leading up to the oh-so-dramatic finale when Tony is killed, where she wears a full red dress. Just as her character has become a woman through the experience in the story, so the red dress symbolizes the change from the innocent young girl in white in the beginning of the story.

Costumes define the characters. Think of how different Percy in his gold outfit at the ball, with Percy in his cape, with Percy disguised as the hunchback (with stubble and sans pouf. Sighhhhhh….moving along…). Think of Chauvelin in his all-black ensemble. Frank Churchill’s rather over-the-top outfits in the 2009 Emma (another fascinating interview on costumes if you have the DVD!!!).  Mrs. Gibson’s outlandish outfits in Wives and Daughters. If you keep your eye open for it, there are so many extra layers added to a story just in what the character is wearing and what color it is and what the costume’s like and whether it’s confining or loose and flowing or stiff and uptight.

Well, hope you all enjoyed this wee lecture. And now for your assignment. Heheheee. Think of a favorite costume drama (or film in general, I won’t fail your test if it isn’t a technical costume drama) and really think about the costumes in it that a particular character wears. Can you see their wardrobe change as the story progresses? Have you noticed this before in other films? I’d love to hear and discuss your opinions!

And thank you again, Maria Elisabeth!       


Alexandra is twenty-three years old and passionate about everything in life. She is a Christian, a homeschool graduate (Class of 06!), daughter, sister to ten siblings, and piano teacher. While the sun rises and sets on The Scarlet Pimpernel, her biggest obsession in life, her other non-TSP obsessions include reading voraciously (classics are her specialty), singing, musical theatre, Doctor Who, playing the piano, anything and everything British, talking, accents (Scottish in particular), costume reproduction, and costume dramas in general. 
She blogs about costume dramas, musicals, costume reproduction, classic literature and everything historical related at Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows, and about everything else in her life (yes, she do have one) at The Value of One, where, despite her best efforts, a bit of The Scarlet Pimpernel always manages to wiggle itself in. She also has the enormous honor and pleasure of contributing to The Day Dream, the most awesome (in her humble opinion) TSP fansite on the web!

9 comments:

Alexandra said...

Thanks so much again for letting me post! I had a wonderful time!

Miss Melody Muffin said...

Excellent post, Alexandra!!! I usually watch a costume drama AT LEAST three times. Once for the story, the second time to analyze (and ooh and ah over) the costumes and how they add to the characters and the story, and the third time for the horses, magnificent houses and scenery. And, I readily admit that if the story isn't very fascinating, I'll easily be swept up in looking at just the costumes! I love watching how the costumes a character wears change with the story, their maturity, the seasons and etc. Costumes do add another whole dimension to a story.

I must say, my dream job is to be a costume designer, starting in theater and moving to films!!!

Victoria said...

Wow, that was amazing! I've heard bits about the the importance of costumes before, but never really paid attention. After your very informative post, I can think of quite a few "important costumes" in my favorite movies. Ahh! So exciting. :)

On a side note, I had no idea that there was a film version of Around the World in Eighty Days. O.o I must look into this, though judging from the pictures it's not entirely accurate.

Thanks for the lovely post!

Natasha Marie said...

Excellent post, Alexandra!!

I'm pretty much a costume freak, but this is something I haven't focused on as much, although I have noticed it. Usually I'm like "Now how could I do make that myself." Really loved reading this:)

And I love it when they have a behind the scenes feature on the costumes! The one on Emma (2009) was wonderful, indeed!

Miss Dashwood said...

Aaaacccck, costumes. Love them. This post was right up my alley! Heh. Pun not intended. :P

Haven't seen TYV yet, but it's next on my list. :D And that was SO COOL about Maria's costumes in WSS... I hadn't noticed that. Hmmm, trying to think of another instance where a character changes through her costumes... now you've inspired me to pay more attention to things like that. :D

GreenMedallion said...

This was awesome! I love the costumes in period films. I'm going to have to start paying more attention to costumes to see how they parallel the character's development. ;)

Hayden said...

I loved this post! The costumes in The Young Victoria are stunning :) And I don't remeber much about the Around the World in 80 Days movie, but I've been trying to watch it again...except I can't find it anywhere :( I know it's not accurate to the book, but I do remember it being hilarious!

I didn't notice that about WSS! Very interesting...and that movie came on last night. Strange coincidence.

An Old-Fashioned Girl said...

What a scrumptious post! I just love period drama costumes!

Miss Dashwood said...

Also, has anyone else seen the 1950's Around the World in 80 Days with David Niven? That one is HILARIOUS and pretty close to the book. Although if Octavius plays Phileas Fogg in the newer version, I might just have to check it out. After all, he may be small, but his heart is large.
Metaphorically speaking.