Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Make Do and Mend Suit

Last year we visited Bletchley Park, home of WWII codebreaking, and I was fascinated by the fact that a lot of men came home from the war to find their wardrobes empty. Their wives had 'recycled' all their clothes, including their suits, to make their own. This was a revelation to me, Australias WWII homefront experience being so different to the UKs.

I LOVE the pocket detail on her jacket!
I've never sewn menswear or tailoring but am completely drawn to it (I have a pretty good collection of charity shop bargain vintage coats). No only can you admire the quality and the hours that have been put into making them, but they also seem better at surviving from generation to generation. Nothing speaks of old fashioned glamour than a man in a good suit or a woman in an imaculate coat (with matching hats, gloves and shoes of course). At college I used to work at the now defunct Fine Wools Direct in Sydney which specialised in suitings and wool fabrics, and I'm sure handing the fabrics and seeing the elderly tailors (the last survivors of a one thriving industry taken over by cheap mass production) coming in for a chat and to buy a suit length has had its influence on me.

Ever since my visit to Bletchley I've wanted to try out making a 'make do and mend' suit. Today I was passing a charity shop and found this beautiful 3 piece suit in a navy stripe flannel. It's 100% wool and beautifully tailored enough that I want to rescue it, but not so much that it's a crime to reinvent it. There's something about pure wool flannel that is so tactile, strong and soft at the same time that is magical. I'm  hoping the 2cm chalkstripe (no its not a pinstripe. Pinstripe is a single thread thickness, chalkstripe is thicker) will give me a change to do some interesting design details with the stripe.

I'm going to start with the skirt, because its easier and less can go wrong. I'm thinking if I can make it fit into the trouser legs I'll do a six gore pattern, as my thighs are my most problematic area and six gores gives a much more flattering shape than the four panel skirts shown above. I want something like the khaki one below. I'm hoping there's enough length in the trousers to give me extra panels. Of course everything will have to be carefully patterned and toiled, there's no option to buy more fabric if something goes wrong, but at least the waistcoat should provide some extra help if needed.

Frock of the Week

Ok so I'm going to do something a bit different. I'm not normally very interested in 'modern fashion'. A bunch of stick thin girls wearing shapeless clothes that you have no chance of buying if you're larger than a size 8, even if you could afford it. But this weeks Frock is an exception. A few week or so ago Lucy Liu divided the opinions of fashionistas everywhere over her Caroline Herrera gown at the Golden Globes. I personally loved it. it combines the elegance of two of my favourite periods, the silhouette of 18th Century France panier gowns and the elegance of 1950s Dior. The flat-fronted corset of the 1700s emphasising cleavage, tiny waist and then the extremeness of the wide hips provides a stunning silhouette, but it is too impractical for the modern day woman to wear. Any attempts to bring it back into fashion have not filtered down beyond haute couture. And that is why I love this dress. By completely taking away any of the frills and fuss, including the styling, and letting a beautiful print speak for itself, Hererra has finally given the paniers a wearability for the modern woman. Sure it's not for everyone or for everyday, but its not 'costumey'

(As a costume designer I do hate the misuse of that word in fashion, and yet until someone comes up with a better one I think it will have to do. Maybe 'fancydressy' is more appropriate? Or 'Gaga-esque?')
Robe a la francaise c. 1770-1775 France
©The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Haytakeyama

Sure Vivienne Westwood, Dior and co have been influenced by Rococo fashions before, but never with such elegance. They're interpretations have always been luxurious, flamboyant and extreme: impractical for wear beyond the runway.
Maison Christian Dior, Haute couture F/W 2007/2008

Photo by Alessandro Lucioni/VOGUE.COM
Vivienne Westwood, S/S 1996

Collection "Les Femmes" @ Marcio Madeira / Zeppelin
The only gown I can think of that comes close to simplicity of the Caroline Hererra gown is this 1950s Pierre Balmain gown. It is both unmistakeably 1950s and 1770s at the same time, elegant and beautiful. While the dress is the fabric is rich and exquisitely embroidered, the silhouette could not be simpler. I can imagine Grace Kelly wearing this dress.
Pierre Balmain, Haute couture Summer 1954

Collections Galliera @ EPV / J-M Manai, C Millet
I was eager to see more of Hererras collection. It was Pre-Fall (whatever that means!) 2013 and I was not disappointed. It combines an old world couture elegance and a modern playfullness that is very hard to get right. Its all about beautiful fabrics made into deceptively simple yet exquisite feminine dresses. The dress Liu wore is definitely the showstopper of the collection, but its a collection that combines 'wow' pieces, 'I would wear that if I could afford it' pieces, and more interestingly even some 'Oooh I might try making that myself' pieces (see the red, blue and white shirt-dress and the navy organza overlaying the stripe detail).

Obviously I found it difficult to make a short list so I recommend checking the entire collection out here.


Buttons are magic.

I used to work for a fabric shop where we had a huge bowl of loose random buttons on the table. Almost every customer who came in, regardless of age, would run their fingers through the bowl and say whistfully 'I used to play with my Mothers/Grandmothers buttons when I was a child'. These small colourful sweet-like treasures evoke a childlike enthusiasm in the most disinterested crafter. They also bring out my otherwise almost completley non-existant OCD side: there is something about a bowl of buttons that makes me want to sort them into piles of size, shape and colour.

I can't explain it.

But buttons can also be scary: I have a friend who is a very talented and successful costume maker who has a phobia of buttons (I am not joking!) No it's not rational, but that's why it's called a phobia.

Anyone who is interested in sewing and crafts in Sydney, Australia knows about The Button Shop in Newtown, or All Buttons Great and Small as it is actually named. It does for button lovers what libraries full of dusty books, leather armchairs and stepladders do for avid readers. And its not just it's wonderful quirky window displays, this is an entire shop dedicated to row apon row of beautifully sorted tubes of buttons from the cheap and cheerful to the extravagent. All the fashion and costume houses, as well as home sewers use this shop. Its incredible.

Don't believe me, here's a link

So since I moved to the UK seven years ago, I have been looking for a British rival to this wonderful shop, but alas have been unable to find one.

Until now.

A few weeks ago I was in Bath and stumbled upon the Bartlett Street Antique Centre, a room full of high quality market-like dealers, mostly specialising in jewellery. And it was there that I found Jessie's Button Box.

Jessie has an amazing collection of vintage and antique buttons on cards, labelled and is surprisingly affordable (at least by my London standards). Its great to have so much choice, but also quantity as well. I am making a concerted effort to minimise my stash so I only bought 3 types of buttons that I knew would be useful. (ok the white/cream ones were bought with a purpose in mind, the black ones are just extremely pretty). The black and white ones are 1930s glass and the cream plastic sparkly ones are 1950s. I bought 3 sets of vintage buttons for £14! I would definitely consider making the trip from London to Bath if I had a few pieces that needed buttons. Yes it's THAT good!!

Recently on her tv show Kirsty Allsop said the words 'my favourite vintage ribbon shop'. How many vintage ribbon shops does she use? And yet I completely understand. I now have a favourite vintage button shop. What's your favourite haberdashery shop?

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Great Prada?

So Miuccia Prada has unveiled 4 sketches of her costumes for Baz Luhrmann's film The Great Gatsby. Costume designer Catherine Martin collaborated with Prada to create over 40 looks for the film, inspired by the Prada and Miu Miu archives. But don't be fooled, archives does not necessarily mean 1920s archives: the dress above is inspired by Prada A/W 2011/12. Prada and Luhrmann have reignited a working relationship that began on Romeo and Juliet (1996)

Now I would normally be the first one up in arms to say 'but costume and fashion design are not the same thing'. However this not any costume design, this is not any film. It is a Baz Luhrmann film. This is the man who was inspired by the plots of opera to set a musical in the Belle Epoque France with contemporary pop songs. He set Romeo and Juliet in contemporary-esque Florida. Some may say he's style over substance (and they wouldn't be entirely wrong), but he's also a man who's very keen on blurring the boundaries between pop culture and high art. He's the man who didn't make a commercial advertising Chanel, oh no, he directed one of the most expensive short film ever made.

Catherine Martin has said: "Baz and Miuccia have always connected on their shared fascination with finding modern ways of releasing classic and historical references from the shackles of the past. This connection is central to our relationship with Miuccia Prada on The Great Gatsby, and has connected our vision with hers. In the same way Nick Carraway reflects on a world that he is within and without, we have tried to create an environment that the audience will be subconsciously familiar with, yet separated from."

 "Our collaboration with Prada recalls the European flair that was emerging amongst the aristocratic East Coast crowds in the Twenties. The fashions of the time saw the development of a dichotomy between those who aspired to the privileged, Ivy League look of wealthy Long Island and those who were aspiring to European glamour, sophistication and decadence. Our collaborations with Prada reflect the collision of these two aesthetics."

If you think this sounds a little wanky, try watching any of the behind the scenes extras on Moulin Rouge! (2001). This is what Baz Luhrmann does best: he creates fantasy. One of his fantasies is that he is the most amazing visionary director who has ever lived. But the visually stunning, in depth fantasy worlds which he creates accounts for a large part of his success, his creates unadulterated escapist entertainment in the truest sense of the word. He knows how to successfully blend modern with period, upper with lower art forms. These may not make for the best 'character' designed costumes, and they will not win any awards for historical accuracy, but subtlety has never played a large part in his production design. Or any part of his film making. The collaboration with Prada and the release of the designs today is part of a well oiled campaign to ensure we are talking about the film months before it's release. But you can be sure that Martin and Luhrmann worked closely with Prada to create a well rounded and thought out world of their creating. No-one who has seen pictures or previews of the film can deny that it looks visually stunning. To me this seems to be more or less what Joe Wright and Jaqueline Durran did much less successfully with Chanel in Anna Karenina, and look at all the nominations it's scooped this season.

I was disappointed when I heard Baz Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's book and think there are already two very good screen adaptations: the 1974 film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and the lesser known 2000 film with Mira Sorvina and Toby Stephens. I believe that Luhrmann's delight in the pretty, sparkly and over-dramatic will result in him completely missing the depth, subtelty and tragedy of the book. And I'm not the only one to think so. But will Prada's designs add to a completely stunning world that is a skillful blend of the contemporary and flapper eras? Will the film be a blockbusting success with millions of fans world wide? I'd bet money on it.

The prettiest costume I've never seen on film

I went to the V&A Costume exhibition last week and I think the unmistakable showpiece of the exhibition was Ginger Rogers dress from The Lady in the Dark. I had never even heard of this film so of course the first thing I did when I came home was to hop on the internet to find out about and buy a copy

And terrible news awaited me. I cannot find a single copy of the dvd for sale in the UK. However I did manage to find this YouTube clip - Ginger Rogers is seen briefly at the beginning but first properly appears in the dress at just after 2min and sings the song Jenny, although she is also in it as a young blonde circus goer at the start. (I'm always startled at how beautiful Rogers is when she's not dolled up)

The film The Lady in the Dark (1944) appears to be loosely based on a stage musical by the same name  with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It was the first project Ira worked on since the death of his brother and long time collaborator George. Without actually having seen the film its hard to understand, but apparently in the film version they dropped all but one of the songs, which strikes me as a weird way to make an adaptation of a musical.

Ginger Rogers, after the height of her Fred Astaire partnership fame, plays the leading role of Liza Elliott, a female editor of fashion magazine 'Allure' who undergoes psychoanalysis for her headaches. The psychoanalysis has three sections, The Glamour Dream, The Wedding Dream and The Circus Dream, which this dress is from. The opulance of this dress purposely contrasts with the reality part of the film, so the dress doesn't have to be practical or sensible on any level, (at least from an audience point of view) it just has to be completely over the top and luxurious. We first see her in this dress in a circus lions cage, so the fur skirt and bolero are evocative of a wild animal, albiet a very glamourous one. The sequins and red colour are both eyecatching, and there is something of the circus ringmaster jacket in the red structured bodice. The skirt reveal, well its just fun and fabulous, what more do you want?

There appears to be some debate as to whether the dress was designed by costume designer Edith Head or director Mitchell Leisen (who started out as an art director), although Rogers has always given Edith Head the credit. This dress formed a large part of the publicity of the film whos tagline was 'A minx in mink with a yen for men'. The gown apparently cost over $35,000  which made it the most expensive film costume in history (at the time at least), and weighed 35 pounds, but it is worth even more as the real mink fur was sourced from rental furs from the costumier. As you can see from the picture below, a fur bolero was made to match the full fur skirt, meaning a LOT of fur was needed. Presumably the labour of hand stitched sequins formed a large part of the astronomical cost.

The heavily sequined and structured bodice forms a v shape at the lower front and back where it meets the full circle mink fur skirt. The lowcut neckline slit at the front is held with a skin coloured mesh insert. The dress very much follows the shaping of 1940s fashion with puffed sleeves to broaden the shoulders, tiny waist and even with that much bulk around the hips, it is added below high hip height to emphasis slim hips, an obvious additional piece rather than a bulky, figure disguising skirt.

When the fur is lifted up (presumably there are hooks to keep it together for the first part as Rogers turns around for a beat before the reveal) it is seen that the entire underskirt and briefs are embroidered to match the bodic and sleeves. The result is breathtaking. I also love the way the fur is pieced around the hips. There may be practical reasons for this, but it also adds a beautiful horizontal detail to the shape and smoothly runs into the vertical seam lines that radiate out around the skirt. 

And I can't write about this costume without pointing out the divine red peep toes with ankle straps. The ones shown at the V&A are platformed front and are not the originals, but do appear to be a better colour match than the pair worn in the publicity shot at the top.

Here's another picture I found of cabaret performer Jill Burke modelling the gown on a costume cruise ship (I'm a little flaky on the details of that one) but you can see the dress in full circle.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Costume Designers Guild Awards Nominees Announced

Today the Nominees were announced for the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards. It has to be considered one of the lesser events of awards season, lacking the star studded red carpet of other award shows, but as an award ceremony voted on by peers must hold no small credit to the nominees and is of particular interest to The Costume Rail.

According to their website 'The Costume Designers Guild was founded in 1953 by a group of 30 motion picture costume designers and was created in response to the changing needs of the movie industry. The Costume Designers Guild promotes the artistry, technical expertise and creative vision of their union members in the field of film and television costume design. Today, its membership consists of over 800 members and includes motion picture, television, and commercial costume designers, assistant costume designers and illustrators throughout the world.'

Below is the list of nominees:


* Beasts of the Southern Wild – Stephanie Lewis
* The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Louise Stjernsward
* Silver Linings Playbook – Mark Bridges
* Skyfall – Jany Temime
* Zero Dark Thirty – George L. Little

 Last Years Winner
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Trish Summerville

I can't really see a stand out winner on this one. If it was up to the Brits Skyfall would win (they love their James Bond with a fierce passion that I just can't understand), but as it is I don't think any of them stand out as being better than the rest. They all lack a strong visual character that makes GWDT so compelling.


* Anna Karenina – Jacqueline Durran
* Argo – Jacqueline West
* Les Mis̩rables РPaco Delgado
* Lincoln – Joanna Johnston
* Moonrise Kingdom – Kasia Walicka-Maimone

Last Years Winner
W.E. – Arianne Phillips

The obvious question here is where is Django? Sharen Davis's costume design was absolutely spot on, and after being ignored at the Oscars and BAFTAs, one has to start asking, who has she pissed off?
I haven't seen Lincoln, but I found Anna Kareninas and Les Mis' costumes highly uninspired. Argo is quality costuming but I just can't see it winning in a period film section. I’d like to see Moonrise Kingdom take this as I found its costumes quirky and visual, but also telling the story and character with finesse, and not pushing the 'quirky' barrier into the realm of being distracting.
I thought the contemporary bit of the costume design for W.E. was some of the weirdest styling I'd ever seen, but the period stuff was immaculate.

* Cloud Atlas – Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
* The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor, Bob Buck
* The Hunger Games – Judianna Makovsky
* Mirror Mirror – Eiko Ishioka
* Snow White and the Huntsman – Colleen Atwood

Last Years Winner 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2 - Jany Temime

For me the stand out film is Snow White and the Huntsman. I’m a huge fan of Colleen Atwood’s non-Burton work. She always combines practicality and beauty so effortlessly and truly understands designing for film in a way that I don't think anyone else can come close to. I have not seen costumes as beautiful as Charlize Theron's in this film in a very long time. The Hobbit didn't really give us anything new that we hadn't seen in the LOTR trilogy, and I found the costumes for The Hunger Games and Mirror Mirror drew too much attention to themselves in a bad way, taking me out of zone of the film to say 'What's going on there?'
Let’s face it, the final instalment of HP could have had the characters dressed in potato sacks and it still would have got the nod for outstanding achievement in costuming for an eight movie franchise. As it was, the costumes were consistent to the high level of costuming we've come to expect from Harry Potter.

* Girls – Jennifer Rogien
* Nashville – Susie DeSanto
* Revenge – Jill Ohanneson
* Smash – Molly Maginnis
* Treme – Alonzo Wilson, Costume Designer. Ann Walters, co-Costume Designer

Last Years Winner
Glee - Lou Eyrich and Jennifer Eve 

I think there's something very interesting, edgy, and more importantly character driven about Girls, but I can't see anyone beating Smash. Everyone loves a musical number, they had Marilyn Monroe costumes, Glee won last year, what more can I say?

* Boardwalk Empire – John Dunn, Lisa Padovani
* Downton Abbey – Caroline McCall
* Game of Thrones – Michele Clapton

Last Years Winner
Boardwalk Empire - John A. Dunn and Lisa Padovani

I can't choose between these, they are all sublime, although I am a little confused why there's no mention of Mad Men. Is that so 2007? But I'm going to predict Game of Thrones to win, if only because Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey both received awards last year.

* American Horror Story: Asylum, Season 2 – Lou Eyrich
* Hatfields & McCoys – Karri Hutchinson
* Hemingway & Gellhorn – Ruth Myers

Last Years Winner
Downton Abbey - Susannah Buxton

I haven't seen any of these so I can't really comment. But I love having an excuse to pop a Downton Abbey pic up here. Incidentally a great image of how to dress 3 very different characters and figure shapes in monochromatic historical accuracy.

* Capital One: Couture – Roseanne Fiedler
* Captain Morgan Black – Judianna Makovsky
* Dos Equis: Most Interesting Man in the World – Julie Vogel

Last Years Winner 
Swiffer: "Country Dirt Cowgirl - Roseanne Fiedler 

Living in London I'm even more out of my depth on this one. I have drunk Captain Morgan’s though which is as good as any reason to back this horse.

Last Years Special Awards
Lacoste Spotlight Award: Kate Beckinsale
Distinguished Collaborator Award: Clint Eastwood with Costume Designer Deborah Hopper
(Deborah Hopper has costume designed most of the films Clint Eastwood directed in the past 10 years including Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima)
Disaronno Career Achievement in Film Award: Marlene Stewart
(known for a host of mega budget films including: T2, Tropic Thunder, True Lies)
Disaronno Career Achievement in Television Award: Lou Eyrich
(known for Glee, Nip Tuck, American Horror Story)

The 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards will be held on Tuesday Feb 19th, 2013. I'm looking forward to finding out who the winners are.

The Point of No Return

I've finished up working on a film project and I now have to sort and return lots of clothing. The project was a contemporary short film with a particularly short pre-production and low budget so I ended up buying more options than I needed with a view to returning any unused items at the end of the shoot. This is absolutely fair enough and almost all high st shops have a good returns policy (although in practice some are more generous than others).

But what about returning clothes that have been worn?

This is an issue which I am sure every costume designer has faced at some point or other, especially when working on low budget projects and I think ulitmately it comes down to personal ethics.

To return....?

  • I only ever use and return clothing to high street chain shops, partly from a vaguely held view that to them I am a dollar sign, and they are happy to manipulate me to get my money, so it works both ways. But also because they have the most generous returns policys.
  • When I do return clothes I use, I plan this in advance, and will only do it with clothes that i know will be worn for a short period of time, that it's ok for me to leave the label in for the shot, and that I can keep a very careful eye on for the entire time the costume is away from the shop. If a label can be easiely taken out and put back in so much the better, but take a photo of it first so that you remember how it goes.
  • Never buy anything that you cannot afford to cover in the event it gets dirty or torn whilst being worn by an actor. Unless you have had very specific conversations with your director and producer first, I would only ever buy things that I think my contigency can cover in the event of damage. You don't want to be left trying to explain why you've doubled the costume budget because of a damaged Vivian Westwood dress.
  • 'But Mum, everyone else is doing it!' I know its not an excuse, but some shops dress their staff in clothes off the rail during their shift, girls buy a dress to wear for a night out and return it the next day. Why shouldn't I do it too?

Or not to return....?

  • When my mother goes shopping, she'll buy 4 or 5 different items of clothing and take them home without entering the change room. She'll then try them on at home with items from her wardrobe, get a second opinion from her daughters, then return anything she doesn't like. This is a very sensible and useful way to shop. It properly enters into the spirit of a returns policy. Wearing and returning does not.
  • Small retailers and franchise owners are just trying to make a living. They are not living in Chelsea mansions on the markups from their sales. I give them the respect of not trying to take advantage of them. 
  • Suits are an obvious choice for using and returning because they cost so much. A lot of shops now put a cord label through the buttonhole at the centre front that can only be removed with scissors. This makes it practically impossible to wear and then return these suit jackets.
  • I understand budgeting is hard. But it's not the producers and directors who trawl the shops looking for items that fit the budget. In many low budget projects, which are the worst offenders of this, the budget overspend goes on the costume buyers personal credit card, not the production companies. I know as a costume designer you have to care passionately about getting the look of the clothes perfect. Noone ever says 'the costumes look great considering the budget' they just judge on a good or bad scale. So you go to extreme lengths to make the costumes look as good as possible. Very few directors or producers understand just how much one outfit costs on the high street, let alone several story days per character. They need to budget accordingly, or at least they should be prepared to suffer the fallout, not the costume designer.

Hints for low quibble returns

  • You've spent the past weeks, months looking rubbish, sacrificing all vanity to make sure other people look perfect. Returns day is the one day its important to look good. Dress nicely and spend time on your hair and makeup. Smile brightly and say hello as you approach the desk. Look like a responsible member of society who is honest, friendly and open, not a tired drug dealer trying to make a dodgy deal.
  • Sort everything thoroughly beforehand. Fold items and put them in the correct store bag where possible. Have the receipt ready.
  • I always return to the largest most central store in the city centre that I can find. You are more likely to be served  by some teenager who's paid £6.50 an hour if they are lucky and who is unlikely to ask questions. They also deal with stylists and costume crew on a fairly regular basis and understand why these people are returning huge piles of clothing.

Some Like it Haute

I just had to share this fantastic fridge magnet I bought at the V&A Hollywood Costume exhibition. It's a dress-up magnetic 'paper doll' Marilyn Monroe. When i was in Naples I bought a (half the size) dress up Botticelli's Birth of Venus, shown here in a medieval kimono style dress, (she also has a Wonder Woman outfit). But Marilyn can dress up as a pirate, a rocker complete with guitar, in a tracksuit (Sacriligious!), a housewife and of course in her Seven Year Itch or Gentlemen Prefer Blonde iconic dresses... or mix and match.

And it has an amusing pun title.

And all for only a fiver!

What could be more fabulous than magnetic poetry on your fridge? Now you know....

V&A Hollywood Costume

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the V&A Hollywood costume exhibition and I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. Not by the exhibition. It was beautiful. But I think it really proved that these are clothes that are designed to be worn by a particular person for a particular purpose.

The exhibition itself was brilliantly curated (if a tad annoyingly laid out) and really went out of its way to emphasise the role of costume designer, the story, the director and the actor in making a costume happen. Its the first time I've ever really felt that something showed costumes in proper context, and the work and thought that goes into designing and making costumes. The computer graffics, lighting, text and film used all added an extra something to the exhibition. I got that 'finally' feeling of someone explaining to the general public (and also hopefully the directors and producers that went along as well), what a costume designer actually does.

My favourite was a quote from costume designer Ann Roth being interviewed about her work on Closer (its not exactly word for word but you get the gist) 'People always say to me "oh you're a costume designer, what fun!" I've never had fun in my life. Except for Mama Mia'

If there is a single costume that encouraged me to be a costume designer, it was Scarlet O'Haras green velvet 'curtain' dress in Gone With The Wind. It is such a magnificent gown and yet it tells such a story. I was very excited to see the gown up close at the exhibition

While it is a beautiful gown, even taking into account that this has been in storage for the best part of 80 years, it is still lacking something magical. The same with the other exhibitions other majorly  iconic costumes: Dorothy Gales' blue checked pinafore and red shoes, and Marilyn Monroe's Seven Year Itch white dress. Without the actresses in them, and lighting and camera on them, they lose all their magic. And I think if there's one thing to take away from this exhibition, film costumes are never designed to stand alone: actors, makeup, hair, lighting and camera, not to mention the script and director, all play an important part.

A beautiful couture outfit will always be a beautiful couture outfit. This looked amazing on camera and even more amazing up close. For anyone interested in sewing, being able to admire the craftsmanship of a costume like this will always be a pleasure. When watching Titanic I had never noticed the fabulous detail on the bottom with the buttons and the horizontal stripe inset. Film costumes tend to have close ups on the face, and it was interesting how often in the interviews in the exhibition someone would say 'you didn't notice it on camera but...'

The most interesting aspect for me was that when filming Avatar, they realised they needed to get all the costume pieces worn by the CGI characters made before digitising them, so that they could copy the way they looked, moved and reflected light. Even in CGI, costume design and making can be very important.

The latter section did have moving pictures of actors/characters faces above the mannequin, which certainly helped. But while I could appreciate the work that went into the gowns, at the end of the day I just had an overwhelming desire to go and watch a movie. Maybe that was the point of the exhibition after all?

Monday, 14 January 2013

And the nomination for the prettiest dress goes to:

So its award season and of course the thing I look for is the nominations for costume design.

The Oscars:
Jacqueline Durran: ANNA KARENINA
Joanna Johnston: LINCOLN
Eiko Ishioka: MIRROR, MIRROR

Jacqueline Durran: ANNA KARENINA
Beatrix Aruna Pasztor: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Joanna Johnston: LINCOLN

With these nomintations come plenty of articles complaining how these days only fantasy and period films get nominations, leaving the 'real' art of costume design, telling story and character through clothing as a seemingly irrelevant art compared to the art of making pretty things. And I couldn't agree more. A brilliant costume designer once told me that he knew he done well if noone mentioned the costumes in the reviews, the idea being that costumes contribute to the story and character, rather than stand out as show pieces.

But perhaps the most interesting article comes from last year:
Notice the point made at the end: one of the most iconic costume designers of all time, Gilbert Adrian, never received a single Oscar nomination. The man designed, among other great films, The Wizard of Oz(1939)!

Surely it's not an over-exaggeration to say this is the most iconic film costume of all time?

Of course when you look at things a little bit closer, Oscars were first awarded in 1929, but they weren't given out for costume design until 1949. Adrian worked largely for MGM in the 1930s, leaving them in 1941 to set up his own fashion house, and while his beautiful gowns were still used in film, he is only credited as costume designer for one more film in 1952, Lovely to Look At.

It's little surprise then that he never received an Academy Award nomination, let alone winning an Oscar!

But which films did?

From 1949-66, two costume Oscars were given out each year, one for black and white and one for colour, before they were condenced into a single award. Edith Head holds the record for both most nominations (35) and awards (8). The first Oscars in 1949 went to Roger K. Furse for Hamlet (B&W) and Dorothy Jeakins and Barbara Karinska for Joan of Arc (Colour). Yes that's the Laurence Olivier and Ingrid Bergman films, both unarguably falling into the period costume category.

But I'm curious: has it always been this way? Working my way through the list from 1949 to current I plan to watch every film that's won an Academy Award for Costume and write about it in my blog, the film, the costumes, and the designers, and which films they were up against. Has good character costume design ever beaten pretty dresses to the podium?

Right, off to Amazon to see if I can find a copy of Hamlet.

Costume of the Week

There is nothing I love more than a frock in an old movie. The army of designers, seamstresses, makeup, hair and jewellery experts (not to mention the set, lighting and cinematography) that work together to create perfection on a person that lets face it, is pretty close to perfect already, has always intrigued me. The reason we can never acheive the heights of glamour acheived on celluloid is quite simply because we cannot afford the time or money that it takes, even if you are lucky enough to be born with the looks and grace of Grace, Marilyn, Audrey or Elizabeth.So this page will be dedicated each week to a different piece of cinematic perfection.

For my first week I'm going to start with a dress and a movie that until 6 months ago I'd never heard of before but am now an enormous fan. The VIPs (1963) has a true superstar pedigree. It is written by playright Terence Rattigan, inspired by the real life story of actress Vivien Leigh leaving her husband Laurence Olivier for lover  Peter Finch, but when fog stranded them for hours in the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport, she changed her mind.

The VIPs stars Elizabeth Taylor as Frances Andros and Richard Burton as her emotionally stunted husband Paul. She is leaving him for aging gigilo Louis Jordan (who provided his own wardrobe and is always immaculately dressed). When the VIPs filmed Taylor and Burton were the height of their tempestous passions and astronomical fame, immediately after Cleopatra. During production Burton was still dithering between his wife and Taylor, and it was in the middle of filming that he finally left his wife and proposed to Taylor.
While the film was costume designed by an uncredited Pierre Cardin, Elizabeth Taylors wardrobe was provided by Givenchy.  Taylor was a keen business woman who knew how to brand herself. For an actress she had unheard of control over the films she made, nowhere more so than her appearance and always ensured control over her hair, makeup and wardrobe, prefering to do her own makeup. True to her style, this dress shows off her greatest assets with a low cut neckline and tight fitting bust and waist. As a famous hourglass shape of fluctuating weight, Taylors skin tight clothing was as important as highly structured underwear to emphasise her waist and make her shape elegant and sexy, rather than frumpy.

Taylor is playing a character so similar to herself that one almost hesitates to call this costume design, although Frances is much more passive character than I imagine Taylor would have been. But playing a famous, wealthy socialite wearing the height of fashion is no stretch for Taylor. Like many old school Hollywood actors, the lines between on and off screen persona were blurred, and despite her infamous personal problems, she knew how to present herself as an immaculate product.

In this scene she has a major confrontation with her husband, injures her wrist on broken glass, and then is comforted by her lover. It is very important then that she wears the dress and is allowed to take centre stage, rather than the dress wearing her. In the rest of the film Taylor wears extremely showy jewellery, but in this scene the styling is underplayed as to be almost non-existant.

In many ways dress is a typical hostess gown, an essential item of clothing for any 1960s woman of class. It was designed to be worn at home only, although in this case it is worn in the privacy of a hotel suit. It is typically empire line to ensure more comfort as you wouldn't have had to wear your girdle with it. It was relaxed but elegant, making an occassion of quiet entertaining at home. 

But this deceptively simple dress is a masterpiece of construction. The flimsy fabric fits like a glove around her bodice and the collar provides a frame for her face and decollatage, esential for on screen close ups. On most other women this very 1960s shade of lolly pink would appear overly girly, but the simplicity of shape, texture and colour, combined with the subtle sheen of the fabric, give this dress a subtle strength. The dress does up with a simple self covered button at the front and the collar is a single rolled piece of bias cut fabric that sits with amazing smoothness. The complementary dark pink sash adds a flash of interest to an otherwise plain, but by no means simple dress.

Below is shot of Taylor in the same film, again wearing a stunning Givenchy dress. The jewellery is a copy of the emeralds Burton presented to her on their engagement, the real ones being to expensive to wear on a film set.

No mention of the VIPs can be complete without giving credit to the supporting cast, including Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford and Louis Jordan. But the sexual repression between Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith in only her third onscreen role is electrifying. Burton famously said that Smith not only stole the scene they were in together, she "committed grand larceny."

Maybe I shouldn't have a mere tea gown as my first 'Frock', but when it's designed by Givenchy and worn by Taylor, I think that is enough to promote any 'Dress' to 'Frock' status.