What would a film be without a costume designer? This question greets guests at the gallery entrance of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising's 26th Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. Each year FIDM pays homage to the imagination, tenacity, and achievement of the costume designer in this one-of-a-kind exhibit. Representing the past year in cinema, visitors will see over 125 outstanding costume designs from 26 very different films released in 2017.
Most costume designers will probably agree that the design process begins with research. That can look different for each designer, and is especially determined by the project. For instance, a biopic or historical drama- like Academy Award nominees Darkest Hour and Victoria & Abdul, or Battle of the Sexes- gives the designer specific people or events to reference, but that doesn't always make the job easier. For I, Tonya costume designer Jennifer Johnson, she hit a wall during her research and, in an act of desperation, purchased a Tonya Harding super fan's collection of magazine and newspaper clippings off of eBay! Luckily, they gave her the visual references she had been unable to get from old, pixelated videos uploaded to YouTube.
Jeffrey Kurland did extensive research for Dunkirk, studying WWII uniforms down to the number of seams a garment had. In an interview with Clothes on Film, he discussed his research process. "In the beginning it’s kind of a one man job. I trawl the internet, I go to libraries – I actually have my own library I use. I bought old magazines and coverage from Dunkirk. Everything I could. In fact my house was starting to smell like wet newspaper with all these old pieces from 1940. Then I got started with my team."
Aside from their wardrobe department, the costume designer will also collaborate with the Director, Production Designer, and other department heads to determine the project's overall aesthetic. For many of last year's sci-fi and fantasy films, that inspiration was found from previous source material. Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok both had comic books and previous films in a franchise to consider when deciding on the visual direction. Blade Runner: 2049 was a sequel to a cult classic. And although Michael Kaplan had previously costumed Star Wars: The Force Awakens before The Last Jedi, he was still bound by the aesthetic of a 40 year old franchise with a very particular fan-base.
Jacqueline Durran perhaps had the most restricting guidelines for her designs for Beauty and the Beast- particularly with Belle's yellow ball gown. I got to chat with her briefly after the UCLA Sketch to Screen panel earlier this month and she said that Belle's gown was the hardest thing she's ever had to design. Due to the iconic nature of the animated film's ball gown, and to avoid getting any backfire like they received for Cinderella's waist-cinching dress, the powers that be at Disney made sure Durran's designs received the stamp of approval from a long list of executives before a final look was decided on.
A story's setting will also determine the costumes' designs. And setting isn't limited to location- it also considers time. Period costumes always seem to be a favorite among viewers and the genre certainly proved to impress the Academy this year, with all 5 of the Costume Design nominees based in another time. In addition to nominees Phantom Thread and The Shape of Water, the exhibit hosts the Civil War frocks of The Beguiled, Edwardian styles as seen in 1890s New York City for The Greatest Showman, and 17th century Dutch fashion of Tulip Fever.
Since period-accurate garments aren't always readily available to the costume designers, it is common (if budget allows) for costume designers to have many of the film's outfits built from scratch- especially for the leading cast. This year's Academy Award winner, Mark Bridges, relied on the skilled bespoke tailors of Saville Row's Anderson & Sheppard to create Daniel Day-Lewis's looks as courtier Reynolds Woodcock.
Other costumes to get the Saville Row treatment are the suited and booted gentlemen of Kingsman: The Golden Circle. For an action flick like this, the garments have to meet extra standards. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Arianne Phillips explained, “So we have to ‘build’ costumes that stand the physical challenges of action and at the same time look pristine and perfect. Only so much can be done in visual effects—and in the end, you have to make a great suit.” Even though the film takes place in a modern setting, the impeccable looks couldn't just be found on the rack. In fact, it is a common misconception that contemporary films are easier to costume. Which is why so many outstanding others can be found in the exhibit, including Girls Trip, Pitch Perfect 3, and Lady Bird. Each of these movies uses wardrobe to help develop its characters, be it through colors, silhouettes, fabrics, or patterns.
One such character to be so heavily developed by their costume is Pennywise. When designing It's costume for the 2017 remake, Janie Bryant drew inspiration from several bygone eras to establish that he was not of the present time- or any time for that matter. The ruffed collar shows Elizabethan influence, whereas the peplumed doublet and overall harlequin look can be credited to Medieval times, and the sleeve puffs allude to Renaissance fashions. As Bryant explained in an interview with Entertainment Weekly- “The costume definitely incorporates all these otherworldly past lives, if you will. He is definitely a clown from a different time.”
There are so many phenomenal costumes at FIDM's 26th Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. If you're in the LA area, or able to make the trip, be sure to catch this wonderful showcase! Find information to help plan your visit below:
Open to Public: Now through Saturday, April 7th , 2018
Gallery Hours: 10am – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday. Closed Sunday/Monday
Location: FIDM Museum & Galleries
FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising
919 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90015
(Corner of Grand Avenue & 9th Street)