Category Archives: costume design

A Theory of Costume Design class

I was thinking this week how much I would enjoy teaching a class about how to design costumes. Not a building or construction sort of class, but one where the focus was on the theory of how to come up with costuming that supports the narrative of whatever medium it is part of.

I would talk about the various ways costumes tell a story– how to use the color, shape, textures, and cultural signifiers to convey information. I’d go over how many media costume design is relevant in, from theater, to film and television, to animation, to roleplaying, to static photography, to graphic novels. I would discuss how differing media all have different practical requirements, such as how things on stage must read from far away, how a motion picture camera tends to flatten out some details while highlighting others, and in animation a costume has to deal with the demands of a moving image. I would talk about everything you’d have to consider when choosing costumes, both in the greater story as well the nature of the particular character, including personality, milieu, time period, class, taste, and position in the world. I’d go into the principles of period costuming, not just the historical knowledge you have to have, but the process of adaptation, to the needs of the project as well as the effect you want it to have on the audience. I’d mention how costumes have to work not just in isolation but with the other costumes, not to mention the other aspects of production design, and how that interaction works.

I can imagine the projects I’d assign. Pick an example of costume design that already exists and explain how it supports the narrative. Choose a dramatic work and come up with a design scheme for it, explaining the reasoning behind your choices. Choose a period of history and analyze the elements that are most emblematic of it, that must be captured in order to convey the feel. Adapt a historical costume and explain what choices you made in the adaptation. Final project: actually design a costume, pulling together whatever elements you need to convey your ideas, and then write about your process of deciding on each element.

It would be fun, and I would be good at that. I wonder if a school would ever let me do it. I don’t have a degree in it, but I’ve studied it a LOT on my own, and I have a lot of practical experience. I should keep my eyes open for any chance to pitch it to someone, be it a university I’m working for, or an adult education program, or anything like that.

Captain America’s Winter Soldier hair

No, this isn’t me making good on my threat to rhapsodize over each of Chris Evans’s individual attractive features in turn. Okay, there’s a little of that in here, but I swear I have more of a point. This is about costume design.

If you’re like me, and you are closely attuned to the tiniest details of the presentation of the most physically desireable man in existence, you may have noticed that Steve Rogers’s hair changes between his original 1940s look introduced in the first Cap movie…

…and the updated look in The Winter Soldier.

(Yes, those are all from a personal collection in my photo library.)

Or maybe you (like Bernie, who has already been subjected to this rant) didn’t notice the styling of his hair at all. But I actually think it was a significant design choice, with a lot of meaning in it, and it’s a change I’m not sure I’m on board with.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Cap’s hair, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. Whether old-fashioned or modern, short, blond, and styled is my favorite look for the man who IS just about my favorite way anything looks in the universe. So from a plain prettiness standpoint, I’m cool with it. But from a costuming standpoint… I’m not sure I buy it.

Hear me out!

Look at THIS hairstyle they chose to use in Winter Soldier in particular. First of all, it’s noticeably modern, particularly in contrast to the sideswept, side-parted, and likely pomaded 1940s good boy look we were introduced to him with. I know why they chose to update it. Probably partially to take advantage of Evans’s boy-next-door good looks, but also, like all costuming and styling choices, to tell you something about the character. In this case, I think it’s to show he’s making an effort to adapt to the present day, to not live in the past. That’s borne out in his acknowledgement of all the good changes since the 1940s, and his effort to learn about current culture.

But what bugs me is not that he has adopted a modern hairstyle– it’s that it’s THIS hairstyle. ‘Cause that look? Is NOT a roll-out-of-bed, low-effort, natural look. It’s not even the Hollywood version of how average men wear their hair, where all the work of styling and product applied are deliberately concealed in order to create the illusion of natural hair. THAT hair is a clearly, obviously, carefully curated, meticulously designed, faux-messy style involving a lot of work and hair gel, associated with young, contemporary men who not only care about fashion and appearance, but about giving off a hip, current vibe to the people who see them.

I am a costume designer. I believe very strongly that truly good costuming (as with all aspects of production design) helps to tell the story. So the baggage the audience attaches to the clothing and styling of the characters should give them information about the characters and narrative.

So, diegetically… why would Cap have that? Now, he might not a be a stranger to styling product. He went into the ice a bit too early for the wet look of the 1950s, but he was probably pretty used to pomading things down as a matter of routine. But this modern look? Is LABOR INTENSIVE, and involves a fair bit of skill to execute those soft spikes and artful back sweep that’s just the right height. In order to wear hair like that, he would not only have to put in the not-inconsiderable time and effort to do it every day, he’d have to deliberately learn how. Where from? I get the idea that he’d choose something more modern to indicate his attempt to update to the present day. But does he really strike you as the kind of guy who’d choose a high-maintenance style that could say anything from “trendster,” “vanity,” “metro,” or even “douchebag”? I could see Steve, with his respectful, good-boy military background, wanting to be neat and turned out, but I don’t see him as hip or invested in preening. To give you an idea, taken from this most excellent video, this is how a 1940s young man with a little bit of daring and vanity did his hair to be eye-catching:

Compare that to Steve’s wartime look. Clearly he’s a much more modest guy than that.

It’s not that big a deal. Probably most people didn’t even notice. And hell, other aspects of his presentation have more to do with his status in a superhero and the attendant stylistic choices– I also doubt a truly diegetic Steve would wear his clothes that tight either.

But tight costumes are part of the superhero genre, Steve’s extreme physique is likely going to fill out ANY article of clothing, and Hollywood is sure as hell going to show off that exquisite heroic figure. I’m the LAST PERSON ON GOD’S BLESSED EARTH to complain to you about that. Hell, I like the fanon joke that all the ladies at SHIELD told him that in the future, everyone wears their clothes that way.

But the hair bugged me. I felt like you could have communicated “Steve is trying to update” without making an out-of-character choice.

Redesigning the Bethany Loring dress in The Tailor at Loring’s End

I’ve been resisting it for some time, but I think I really do need to redesign the dress in The Tailor at Loring’s End.

As I’ve mentioned, my big inspiration for the look of it was the green dress Keira Knightley wore in Atonement, specifically the long, straight silhouette and the hip swag. They don’t often these days design really iconic dresses for movies anymore—not like they did for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly —and I thought that was the only such example to come out of the movies in years. If this movie got made, I would want this dress to be iconic in that way, so that people remembered it and saw it as a tribute to that classic sort of costume design tradition. “The Bethany Loring dress, in cornflower blue, with lily shapes beaded on the bodice.” I was even pleased when I realized that what I was imagining was roughly appropriate for the 1930s, given that most of Tailor takes place in 1934.

imageWhat I hadn’t taken into account, however, was the fact that the other part of Tailor takes place back in 1917— and the dress was actually designed back then. Which made my mental image of it totally wrong for the era in which it was made. This frustrated me, as I was actually pretty attached to my mental image, but it was just too far off even for artistic license. I ignored it for a long time, as I didn’t want to deal. But now that I’m writing a treatment for Tailor, the problem jumps out at me again.

Fortunately, since writing it I’ve become a fan of things like Downton Abbey, which as given me more of an eye for the look and design style of 1910s gowns. I think I can reasonably translate my vision of the dress into something that wouldn’t look totally, utterly inconceivable for the time. Especially since the major design elements I’m imagining— a cowled overlay on the neckline, a beaded bodice, and the Atonement-inspired hip swag —all could be reasonably included on a 1910s evening dress.

Of course this is all a pretty minor thing. If the movie ever got made, even in my wildest dreams, an actual costume designer would be making those decisions instead of me. Still, the design elements are referenced in the script, and some of them are even plot-relevant. To a certain extent, there would be a need to interpret my vision. So I’m glad I’ve finally come around to the changes it would be necessary to make.