The fashionistas among you may be disappointed, as I am not here to discuss the latest shoes by Christian Laboutin – fabulous though they may be.
Rather, I thought I’d take a moment to praise Costume Designers, those Heads of Wardrobe that can be the director’s collaborator in defining character.
Can be? I’m going to go out on a limb here and state “should be”.
One of the things that makes production so appealing, in film or theatre, is that it is a collaborative art. A group of people work with elements they bring together to make a finished whole.
Ardent partner Chris Comrie has worked in the film industry since he was 15-years-old. What started as a summer job in the art department became his full time life, moving from department to department, in a variety of positions. The seasoned pros taught him a lot over the years, and being a kid when he started, he had a lot to learn.
One of his all time favourite crew members then and now is Delphine White. Delphine is a brilliant Costume Designer whose credits include a real variety of titles, from Dream House to Videodrome to Scanners. Currently she’s in charge of the Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana/Will Rokos series Copper. A cop drama set in New York in the 1800s, Copper is a good example of that for which Costume Designers typically get praised: namely, period pieces.
People like lush costume dramas, so it’s no wonder that is where designers receive the majority of their recognition; wardrobe that is no longer readily available, clothing that must be designed and researched and constructed.
Audience tends to take the wardrobe for granted when the lead enters a contemporary scene wearing jeans and a t-shirt. But here to me really, is the beauty of the Costume Designer’s craft: jeans? What kind and colour? Are they new inky indigo or faded almost white and threadbare? If it’s a white t-shirt, is it stained? Or an old black t that’s faded? Button fly or zip? Is he a persnickity guy who irons a crease in them? If you’re the writer-director or the writer-producer of your small indie project, you need to be able to answer these questions, because they all make a statement about the character when he enters the scene. Her clothes are a key way we are going to instantly have her character communicated to us as audience.
A couple favorite examples of mine: Delphine had a few ideas about a dress I was supposed to wear in a production. The role was of a self-involved thoughtless girl, one whose narcissism and desire for attention eventually turns dangerous in a situation she wants to survive. But does she need to turn on others to ensure her own survival or is she simply prospering?
I was doubtful about a vintage dress I had but showed it to Delphine just in case. Navy blue with large polkadots.
Her face lit up. “Perfect! Because polkadots are very passive-aggressive. They say ‘look at me/don’t look at me’ at the same time. That’s who this character is.”
The wardrobe felt perfect then and I wore it with confidence. It helped me do my job.
My other favorite example was one Delphine and I discussed while talking all things Wardrobe. It comes from Kissing Jessica Stein, a small independent movie co-written by Jennifer Westfeldt, who more recently directed Friends With Kids. In Kissing, Heather Juergensen’s Helen wants to sleep with Westfeldt’s Jessica; her character is confident in her desire to sleep with a woman where Westfeldt’s isn’t; Helen is fun and seductive. In the scene where they finally get together, the Costume Designer had Helen’s black wardrobe embellished with a lot of fringe; fringes on her purse, her clothes etc. Why? Because Helen is the ‘cowboy’ in the story, like the man-in-black filled with sexual swagger.
They may just be polkadots and fringe, but they say so much.
Look, if you’re financing your film out of your own pocket and that pocket holds a micro-budget, you might think you can’t afford a Costume Designer. Hopefully you will be able to have one under whatever wing-and-a-prayer running-on-fumes arrangement you have with other crew members. Can’t do that? Ask one to “consult” on your movie. If your story is contemporary, you know you can have a wardrobe you’ve put together inexpensively even from the actors’ own wardrobe and buying some inexpensive new or used, broken in clothing. Wouldn’t it be so much better to have the eye of a Costume Designer make notes on your script, advising you on cuts and colour palettes for the characters, for the actors?