design in motion

– . – Design in Motion

Design in Motion

The Costumes of Black Swan

Watching Darren Aronofsky’s ballet drama Black Swan is a breathtaking experience, thanks as much to its stunning visuals as its performances. Here, costume designer Amy Westcott reveals the role that she played in the film’s design, right down to the last leg warmer…

From the moment Black Swan opens with a continuous shot of Natalie Portman dancing a sequence from Swan Lake, lit only by a single spotlight, the audience is instantly transplanted into the world of the ballerina; no mean feat, considering many cinemagoers may never have had any previous contact with ballet. But shedding light on a closeted section of society is something that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has done before, with the likes of mathematical thriller Pi (1998), and wrestling drama The Wrestler (2008). And his sumptuous worlds are made possible thanks to the creatives that Aronofsky surrounds himself with, who all share his attention to detail and addiction to meticulous research.

One person who has immersed herself in Aronofsky’s world is costume designer Amy Westcott, who was responsible for outfitting the entire cast of Black Swan. And, having also worked on The Wrestler, she has developed a strong collaborative relationship with the director. But, as she reveals, it didn’t get off to the best of starts. “I haven’t told anybody this story,” she laughs, “but years ago I interviewed with him and got the job [as costume designer] on his first movie, Pi. He hired me, and I was petrified. I was sure that I knew nothing! And I was so scared that I would ruin his first movie, I felt so over my head, that I called him and said that I had another job! Years later, I walked in and interviewed for The Wrestler and at the end of the interview I said, ‘By the way, you’ve hired me before’. And he said, ‘Why didn’t you stay on? Nobody did costumes so we ended up piecing them together ourselves!’ I don’t think it was that story that hooked him, but we just got along from there!”

As with every successful cinematic collaboration, it takes a lot of hard work, and Westcott’s involvement on Black Swan started well before production.

“There were months of research,” she reveals. “The way Darren works is that you’re walking into a different world. You just feel like you walk in and shut the door. That’s part of the beauty of costume design, you can really research. You can really dive under every rock. Talking to people who are in that world is my favourite part. I spoke to several dancers and the American Ballet, as well as the New York City Ballet. They were very kind and let me sit in on the classes. And I just sat there like a fly on the wall in the corner. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos but I did sketches and took notes.” And spending all those months in the company of ballerinas enabled Westcott to ensure that all of her costumes are completely accurate, right down to how a dancer wears her leg warmers. “A lot of dancers are going to see this movie, and they are the harshest critics.

And so you really have to get it right!” she enthuses. But that’s not to say she wasn’t allowed any freedom of expression. “You have to stick to the rigid guidelines, because it has to be realistic, but at the same time we did take some creative license. For instance, dancers today usually wear their tights on the outside of their leotards, because it gives them a smoother line. But the way it used to be, and certainly with young girls, was that they wore them on the inside. It’s something that they call ‘bunhead’, which is [like] the stereotypical pink ballerina on top of the jewellery box. So we took the liberty of doing that with Natalie’s character, because we wanted to make her look like the innocent 12-year-old trying to be the perfect dancer. But they don’t really do that; they would say, ‘You’re a total nerd!’”

Indeed, even though the costumes of Black Swan are dictated by the traditions of ballet, look a little deeper and you’ll find that they perfectly represent the psychologies of the characters who wear them. Central to the film is the tumultuous relationship between Nina (Portman) and her ambitious understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), and Westcott worked hard to ensure their personalities were reflected in their appearance. “It was very important you understood that Nina was rigid and prim. You get that impression through her colours, and the fact that she’s wearing a turtleneck in one scene. She’s not sexy; she’s always a little bit covered up. Lily was always in black, and she’s kind of cat-like, and she’s showing her skin… she’s very comfortable with her body and her sexuality.

“But everybody is important,” Westcott continues of the attention to detail she had to maintain across the board. “Working on Darren’s movies, even a background artist who is on screen for a second is very important, because they can take someone out of the realistic nature of the film. The way we figured it out in the beginning was that each character related to a character in the Swan Lake ballet.

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