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Character building…

August 3, 2011

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that my photos from the “Dressing the Stars” exhibit are up. (Clickety click on each film for more photos.)

Now, glancing at my visitor stats for those pages, it’s interesting that costumes from the Duchess, followed by Dangerous Liaisons, are already getting BY FAR the most hits. But I suppose it’s not entirely surprising. Because there’s nothing like eighteenth century frocks to set the sartorial pulse racing, right? Absolutely nothing like clouds of taffeta and as many trimmings as you can shake a stick at. (And, yes, they were certainly gorgeous in real life.) But. But. I’d like to highlight three of the costumes on display that were less elaborate, but, in many ways, more memorable.

First up: the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even if you’ve never seen the film (made in 1981) chances are you’ve seen the image of Meryl Streep in the hood and cloak, staring out to sea. Her character, Sarah, poor, and not particularly interested in the latest fashions, was possibly not the most exciting character to design for. But in this outfit, in all its sombre heaviness, the mystery and melancholy of her character is unmistakable. There have been many hooded cloaks worn in films before and since, but this is surely the hooded cloak’s defining moment.

Now for something entirely different: the suit of armour worn by emperor Commodus in Gladiator. Joaquin Phoenix wears this in his final showdown with Russell Crowe’s character. I didn’t realise how memorable it was as a costume until I turned a corner of the exhibition and recognised it immediately. The costume designer, Janty Yates, apparently designed it to resemble marble statuary. Made of rubber overlaid with thin leather, the detail is amazing:

But what’s brilliant about it as a design is that it says much more about Commodus, about his vanity, about his hubris, than words ever could. This is armour you might give a child to dress up in- all pretensions of glory, and nothing whatsoever to do with blood or dirt or death. (And of course it’s a total contrast to Russell Crowe’s rugged combo.) It’s the armour of someone who has no real comprehension of battle- and with its silky little white flutters of sleeves and underskirt I think we all know it’s not going to wash well…

Jack Sparrow* doesn’t get a lot of costume changes in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. (In fact, does he get any?!?) He IS his costume- and his costume is all about him. See all the trinkets, baubles, scarves, furs and general flotsam and jetsam hung about it? All these details (which Jack has accumulated over his pirate existence) have skillfully been integrated into one “look”. The whole costume is greater than the sum of its parts- it’s the general effect that works.

And the distressing is interesting too- all the little worn patches in the fabric of Jack’s life. See the edge of the cuff below:

So this then is perhaps what the most memorable film costumes do, regardless of whether they are the most beautiful, or the most technically elaborate: they give us a sense of character, a sense of mood. In short, a sense of story.

*(Some of you may be of the opinion that any costume that has Johnny Depp inside it is always going to be fabulous. If so, you might be amused by the Johnny Depp song over on Youtube…)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2011 7:25 am

    Fantastic photos, thanks so much for posting these! I wish I could go and have a drool over them myself. Have you read Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume and Design? Big coffee-table book on Hollywood costumes from the silent movies up until now, lots of fantastic stills, photos and sketches. I think you would really enjoy it.

  2. glassoffashion permalink
    August 11, 2011 9:27 am

    Ooh, yes- I remember picking that book up and sighing over it in a store some time back. It was only the price that stopped me hefting it to the cash register… But it definitely remains on my wish list of gorgeous costume books!

  3. Kelly Ross permalink
    March 24, 2021 3:01 am

    That’s *Captain* Jack Sparrow.

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