Sunday, 10 February 2013

Hitchcock and the art of redesigning a famous film costume

Scarlet Johansson and James D'Arcy wearing their 'Psycho' costumes in Hitchcock

With the release of Hitchcock in cinemas this week, and a slew of biopic films recently released or in production, an important issue arrises: how does a costume designer copy an existing famous costume for a new production? Is it really costume design if you're just recreating someone else's work?

This is a different skill than merely recreating a famous person's look for a biopic, which requires knowledge of the fashions of the day, and the persons style, but often allows for quite a bit of artistic interpretation. It's recreating a very specific costume that is, in some cases, as famous as the actor themselves. Does it even count as costume design? How would the uncredited costume designer of Psycho(1960), Rita Riggs, feel about Hitchcock costume designer Julie Weiss' recreation of her work over 50 years later? Does it even matter? Surely Weiss' first obligation is to the film 'Hitchcock' and it's audience?

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane
With Anthony Hopkins and his bizarre fat suit in Hitchcock
As much as I'm dying to, I'm not going to rant about the weirdly offputting use of fat suit and makeup worn by Anthony Hopkins to play Alfred Hitchcock (did they not trust us to use our imagination?). I'm going to try to stay on topic. Today I'm more interested in the art of recreating a specific characters' costume, not recreating an actual person. Although with the strength of Hitchcocks personality, his iconic wardrobe of black suit and tie, and his infamous cameos in his films, he probably falls into the grey area of this definition.

Recreating a costume takes a lot of work and tact. There is a very fine line between recreating a costume for a movie, and simply putting someone in fancy dress. There is a distinct difference. The new costume needs to be as believable and relevant for the new film as the original was for its own. In the same way that Scarlett Johansson is playing Janet Leigh, playing Marion Crane, Julie Weiss is costume designing Hitchcock, costume designing Psycho.

In an interview with blog 'The Film Experience', Julie Weiss said of Psycho's costumes: "We must remember this is a black and white movie, and our memories are in black and white and somehow we colour correct our own memories. In Janet Leigh’s book she talks about Marion Crane’s dress being blue and we were able to find these in the archives at Universal. I was lucky enough to be able to look at it."

There is definitely similarities in this costume to other leading ladies in Hitchcocks film, (and apart from the colour to Vera Miles dress and coat ensemble, also in Psycho) The cool muted blue/green/grey wool suit, with a high neckline displaying no cleavage is used again and again for Hitchcock's leading ladies: Grace Kelly in 'Rear Window' (1954), Kim Novak in 'Vertigo' (1958) and Tippi Hendren in 'The Birds'(1963) which is almost exactly the same colour as the 'Rear Window' suit (see further down). As his heroines all look physically similar as cool, reserved blondes, they also dress in a similar way. Yet Hitchock was unafraid to show women in their lingerie (or less), so maybe there is something in the idea of vouyerism: the virgin, the sexy librarian or the burlesque idea that the strip itself is sexier than the reveal. Women being completely covered in order to make it exciting when they do actually show skin.

Grace Kelly in Rear Window

Kim Novak in Vertigo
When recreating a costume made in another era, it is practically impossible to make a truely faithful copy of a piece of clothing, however similar they may look. The new costume designer has completely different resources and technologies available to them. They must choose the most suitable fabric and trims to recreate the look. But they're also creating clothing for a different person, with a different figure, and the design will inevitably be altered in the process. Like it or not certain elements of the design will probably be updated to fit with a modern audiences belief in how things should look, which is sometimes more important than accuracy. Hundreds of small decisions go towards the new costume designer making the design their own.
Full length photo of Marion Crane

Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel in their Psycho costumes in Hitchcock
In an interview with Grazia magazine, Weiss gave credit to the actor as an integral part of a costume: "As a costume designer, I have no desire to work alone. I want to be part of something so in order for those costumes to work they have to belong to the actor and the character. You have to know the actor as you make the costume. You have to watch them walk and learn who they are. I think each actor has their own story and level of strength."

Vera Miles as Lila Crane

Vera Miles

Jessica Biel as Vera Miles

It would be difficult to talk about 'Hitchcock' without mentioning a very similar film of recent years, My Week With Marilyn (2011). For me the highlight of the costume design in this film was the recreations of Beatrice Dawson's original The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) costumes. Yes these costumes are unmistakably 1950s interpretations of Edwardian costumes, but I think that is part of their charm. I got to the end of Simon Curtis' film and wished I'd spent that previous two hours watching the real Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. I'm still not sure if this is a compliment or an insult to Marilyn costume designer Jill Taylor.

Marilyn Monroe in her stunning The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl

Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

There is a definiate fashion at the moment for recreating old Hollywood. In the past few months there's been another (made for TV) movie about Hitchcock and his films: The Girl (2012) starring Sienna Miller as Tippi Hendren, which recreated scenes from The Birds.

Tippi Hendren in publicity still for The Birds

Sienna Miller in publicity still for The Girl - there can be no mistaking the latter dress is inspired by the former, but notice the decision to make the white dress black, replacing dull fabric for satin, and putting much less fullness into the skirt waist. Also am I the only one who thinks there's something odd going on with Miller's bust points?

Tippi Hedren in her green dress and coat ensemble designed by Edith Head

Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels
And in some of the least inspired casting I've seen in a long time (otherwise known as 2 of my least favourite actors playing 2 of my all time favourite actors) Lindsay Lohann is playing Elizabeth Taylor and Nicole Kidman is Grace Kelly in the upcoming films 'Liz and Dick' and 'Grace of Monaco', respectively. (although I believe Kidman's film is set post Kelly's film career). From the pictures I've seen of Lindsay Lohann playing Cleopatra the filmmakers seemed to have decided NOT to copy any of Elizabeth Taylors dresses, but instead to reimagine new designs 'in the style' of. Does this make it more interesting for the costume designer? Probably. Is this what the audience wants? I don't think it is. And more to the point, they seem to have completely ignored the essential elements of the film's design: are we really supposed to believe that Elizabeth Taylor (who had the final approval of her costumes) would ever have agreed to wear something that covers so much of her decolletage?
Lilo as Cleopatra - surely Liz would never have worn this neckline?

Lohan as Taylor as Cleopatra and Grant Bowler as Burton as Marc Antony
The closest picture I can find of Burton and Taylor to the costumes above

Possibly my favourite dress from Cleopatra: a similar colour to Lohanns costume. Notice the low cut cleavage and very fitted bodice and waist typical of the costumes from the film

Painting from the poster of the film - the headdress is in the film, but the shift is an imagined costume based on the sort of thing she wears in the film.
And who could forget TV Movie The Audrey Hepburn Story (2001) starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Oh you blanked that from your memory...? Fair enough... To me this is much more of a fancy dress outfit than a carefully costume designed decision, especially the cheap bridal shop tiara Love Hewitt is wearing.

Its a difficult thing for a costume designer to give the audience what they want and stay true to themselves. I suspect most costume designers have faced this dilemma at one time or another in their career. So I'm going to leave you with a fantastic quote from Weiss which pretty much sums up costume design for me: "When the costume becomes clothing you know it's the actor becoming the character...I'm far more interested in watching an actor becoming a character than have a gown stand by itself."


  1. I think I saw on E! about the costumes for the horrific Liz & Dick (HOW can you make a movie that is more boring than the real story is beyond me.) that Fox told the Lifetime production that is the costumes from Cleopatra could not be copied in any shape or form. Wise choice I think. I did love the costumes from Hitchcock and My Week With Marilyn though, very well recreations that evoke the originals, even when on actresses with very different body types.

  2. Really? That explains it then. I still don't think they could have made them look more in keeping Elizabeth Taylors style though. The film hasn't come out in the UK yet so I haven't seen it