– . – Reading Costume on Film
Reading Costume on Film
Costume design remains one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated filmmaking arts.
Far in excess of merely dressing an actor for their role, costume design is discourse.
A film can be read via costume, sometimes overtly, other times by subtext. This applies not just to conspicuous sci-fi or period pieces, but also contemporary stories set within a familiar world in familiar attire. On screen, even the most rudimentary item of clothing can take on meaning. A white T-shirt on film is never just a white T-shirt: consider Brando, Dean or Delon. When viewed in context, it is the ultimate symbol of male sexuality. Quite simply, it is costume nakedness. Vulnerable, pure, masculine; a plain white shirt is the most erotic force in cinema.
2010 was a boundary crossing year for costume. Beyond the typical crop of historical dramas, fantasy and comic book adaptations, all of which are commonly accepted as highly visible and emblematic forms of sartorial expression, the past 12 months have seen a number of contemporary films garner attention for their clothing.
Inception would be a prominent example. Although science fiction to a degree, the story exists within a recognisable world, with costume designer Jeffrey Kurland creating, literally from scratch, a
stylish and functional template for differentiating character, and even for interpreting plot. There are subtleties within the film that allude to time, space and the emotional make-up of the protagonists: Eames (Tom Hardy), the relaxed, travelled member of the group wearing tropical style splayed collars and a linen jacket; Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), dark and unsettled, his clothing loose and layered in a sombre colour scheme; Ariadne (Ellen Page), creative and young, a typical Paris student in a patterned silk scarf; and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), signature in a three-piece suit, measured and fastidious.
This applies to the minor characters too, such as Cobb’s mentor Miles (Michael Caine), his Nehru collar shirt and tweed jacket suggesting the familiar look of the academic, while projecting a futuristic, even dreamlike, air. That such a simple costume touch could imprint on the narrative is not too great a leap. Consider what Cobb’s children are wearing at the end of the story. On first glance this is the same as within his flashbacks; look again and their clothes reveal a potentially momentous truth.
“When a world is unfamiliar or at the behest of its own rules and backstory, dress can fi ll in the blanks.”
Costume design need not be subtle. Particularly in science fiction, clothing is often used as visual iconography that speaks to the audience, though without breaking the fourth wall.