If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time or talked to me in person, you already know that I LOVE costume design. Great costumes bring me so much joy. I think good movie costumes advance the plot, provide character development without heavy-handed exposition, and (of course) look amazing. For this week, I didn’t decided to steer away from iconic costumes as inspiration, because it is easy to get overly costumey. If I went to work dressed up in a gingham jumper, a white shirt, and red shoes, people would immediately get the Wizard of Oz reference. They would also give me strange looks, because it isn’t Halloween yet and Halloween is the only socially acceptable time to wear such a literal costume. So I went a little more meta and put together outfits that gave the right vibes, without being tied to any specific movie.
I loved this week. If you love costumes and/or movies, you might want to try this challenge yourself! I searched through my old Polyvore outfit boards to find additional example outfits. If you didn’t know, Polyvore ceased to exist quite suddenly, but I fortunately was able to download all my past work! It was so fun to sift through the collages and find applicable boards for each genre.
Foreign Language Film
For this look, I wanted to channel a retro French film style. The 1950s Parisian style is still actively referenced in so many ways – slim fit trousers, crew neck knit tops, horizontal stripes, pointed toe flats…. the list goes on. Audrey Hepburn was in American films, but she was in Paris fashion. Since the Audrey style is so often referenced, I decided to go for a different icon of the gamine style, Jean Seberg. You may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably worn styles she popularized. If you’ve worn a graphic or striped t-shirt with skinny jeans and flats, that’s a classic Jean Seberg outfit.
Another French film that has killer style is Amélie. The color styling and harmony between the set design and costume design is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s like seeing the color red for the first time. Just amazing.
Style lessons to take away from French films:
- A dramatic hairstyle can be your most important and impactful accessory.
- Wear clothes casually. If you don’t act cool in your clothes, your clothes won’t look cool.
- Sometimes the simplest pieces have the greatest impact.
- Secrecy and mystery are beautiful. The French idiom “je ne sais quoi” literally means “I don’t know what”. It’s an indefinable quality that draws people in. True beauty lies beneath the surface.
- The eyes are the window to the soul. If you need to decide which feature to emphasize, choose the eyes.
I found this charcoal skirt suit in the Salvation Army in the middle of summer. I had never owned a suit before, but it was such a good fit and made of such lovely material, I decided to buy it. I couldn’t wear it immediately, because it was (as Cole Porter put it) too darn hot. But once the weather cooled down and the Drama genre rolled around, the suit came out for the first time. Nothing conveys Serious and Dramatic like a dark suit.
Since my office is not exactly a suit office, I expected some reactions, but oh my goodness. I’ve never gotten so many reactions to an outfit before. I had coworkers doing double takes, giving me nods of approval, and most of all, asking me what was up. The suit was a total fake-out, because I didn’t have any meetings, events, or interviews that day. But the suit looked Very Important. It looked like I was about to brief the White House on an urgent matter of national security. The jacket made me sit up straight. Suiting up made me feel sharper and quicker and wittier.
Tailored clothes make the wearer look intelligent. Good tailoring is like a British accent for clothing. People listen to an important looking suit. Since suits make everything seem more serious, they are perfect for dramas. When I think of perfectly tailored women’s suits, I think of Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and Ingrid Bergman. Cool, calm, collected, controlled, complex. In my opinion, the best drama is like the last scene in Casablanca, when every single person needs to make a decision between doing what’s right and doing what they want. It’s cinematic perfection. If you haven’t seen Casablanca, you need to watch it.
The power suit has gone through variations, but has always been a staple of dramatic storytelling. I’ve included a couple of my favorites – Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully from The X-Files, whose sharp suits support her role as the quick clear-minded skeptic. I think the current queen of suits is Gina Torres’s character Jessica Pearson on Suits. That show is aptly named. Everything she wears is a power move.
Style lessons to take from dramas: If you want to be taken more seriously, suit up. Dress like the stakes are high.
After the dramatic suit, it was fun to take a complete departure and try a style based on that oft-maligned movie genre, the Musical. I love a musical. I’m perfectly happy to sacrifice a little plot if there’s singing and dancing. But when everything comes together and the plot, the acting, the singing, and the dancing are all stellar, musicals are truly beautiful. They are the most difficult genre of movie to make and costuming for musicals offers specific challenges that you don’t find in other genres.
Two of the most important aspects in a musical costume are movement and color contrast. Let’s start with movement. The costume needs to hold up through exhausting days of filming dance scenes and look good from every angle. It needs to accentuate the movement and show off the dancer. It needs to be a crazy mix of practical and beautiful. Imagine a hybrid of high-performance athletic wear and an evening gown. Take a look at this still from Swing Time – one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ finest.
Fred and Ginger make the dancing look easy. Likewise, those costumes look simple enough, but I can guarantee that so much engineering that went into making Ginger’s skirt twirl perfectly and making Fred’s coattails flare out when he turned. Fred and Ginger were the very best and they had costumes to match.
Moving on to the second important aspect of a good musical costume – color contrast. See Fred Astaire’s spats? They aren’t just there for nattiness. The white spats are there to draw focus to his feet. If he didn’t have a contrasting color on his shoes, his footwork would get lost. The lead performers need to stand out from the background, and sometimes in musicals, that background includes tons of other dancers. That’s where contrast comes in. The first musicals were in black and white, so the brightest and darkest shades were reserved for the lead actor and actress, and the background costumes would either be the opposite color or mid-tone shades.
When musicals transitioned to beautiful technicolor, color became a huge part of the costuming challenge. Contrast was still the most important thing, but the designers were no longer limited to just black and white, so the contrast usually came from vibrant color, not just shades. One of the best recent examples is La La Land. Emma Stone’s character stands out through color – bright blues, yellow, greens, reds. Ryan Gosling’s character usually stands out through shade – bright white shirts, black trousers, two-toned shoes. They not only contrast against their surroundings, but they also contrast against each other. She’s the sun, he’s the moon. She’s bright and colorful and new, he’s a throwback to the black and white days. These are storytelling costumes and the results are stunning.
Style lessons from movie musicals:
- Twirl Factor is important. When you’re trying on a dress, take it for a spin in the dressing room.
- Contrast is powerful. Want to stand out? Wear bright white or a bold color.
- Have fun! Dance, sing, and wear clothes you love.
Science Fiction – the ultimate What If. The only limits to science fiction are the limits of your own imagination. And the limits of the costuming budget. I find sci fi costumes fascinating, because they present the designer’s vision of the future. The costumes help answer those sci-fi questions. What will the future be like? Will we actively reference the past, like we do now? Will clothing be purely practical? Will everyone wear the same thing or will clothing still show layers of societal ranking? Will it be militaristic? How connected will clothing and technology be? Will our communication devices be sewn into our sleeves so we can just talk into our wrists? WILL THERE BE FLYING CARS? I WANT FLYING CARS. Actually, I want a personal sized dirigible that works by pedaling, so I can just float above the ground and pedal around town and look at stuff. But that’s not really sci fi. That’s more steampunk.
If I was in charge of creating a Future Aesthetic for a sci fi movie, I think I would go the route of Retro-Futurism. This is the idea that Future Us will reference and draw inspiration from the past. I don’t think clothing ideas will be entirely new, but they will be transformed into something Other. Clothing comes in cycles – the 1980s were obsessed with the 1950s, but the references looked like the eighties-version-of-the-fifties. Think Back To The Future or Madonna recreating Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. I don’t think the future will be any different – the same ideas will keep circulating, but they will change with each iteration.
I hated the storyline of the Hunger Games, but the costume design was compelling, because they drew on the emotion surrounding the Great Depression. The poor districts are straight out of the Dust Bowl – flour sack dresses and patches and worn out shoes. The photographs we have from that time are haunting images of desperation and resignation and those images are seared into our minds, so when we see District 12, we already know that this is a people who have been through a tragedy and given up hope.
Probably the most famous example of retro-futuristic design is Blade Runner. In the highest strata of society, the fashion is an exaggerated 1940s style, which gives the whole movie a Film Noir feel. It bends the genre into something new – a future film noir fusion, with Harrison Ford in the Humphrey Bogart role. The aesthetic of a movie can cross genres and make you see an old story in a new way.
Style lessons from science fiction: Our decisions now will influence the next generation, so we should be actively involved in shaping culture now. We shouldn’t hide from art and fashion and music. If we want to hand something good down to our kids, we need to step up and make it now. The past affects the present, so the present affects the future.
Westerns are America’s mythology. Cowboys and gunfighters are our version of knights in armor, our Lancelots and Mordreds. My grandma lives in the desert and we have watched many, many John Wayne movies at her house. There’s something about watching a western, then stepping out the door into the perfect setting for a western. Icy night air, bands of cold white stars, bare rock hills, sagebrush, moonlight, coyote howls…. the Mojave Desert is one western cliché after another.
Of all the genres I tried this week, cowboy movies are the most personal to me. If I got the chance to make one movie, it would be a western. A good western is a combination of everything – it’s a historical period piece, a drama, an action movie, a character study, a romance, with comedy thrown in for good measure. Plus guns and horses and hats and all that good stuff. Actually, I think cowboy movies are the reason I started making hats. I can never find a hat that is exactly what I want. I want a Magnificent Seven hat. One day I will make the perfect Magnificent Seven hat and I will be so happy.
Western style has actually been having a high fashion moment for the past couple of years. Dior, Chanel, and Ralph Lauren have all had Tombstone moments within the past five years. It’s in the air.
What do I love about western style? It is a beautiful style without being purely decorative. The materials are chosen for protection and constant wear – wool, leather, denim, canvas, metal. It’s distinctly American, but it comes from everywhere. The cowboy look has elements from Britain, Mexico, Spain – anyone who came out west had a hand in shaping it. It has a landscape associated with it and it’s a landscape I know and love. It has power of myth behind it.
Style lessons from westerns:
- Don’t buy purely decorative clothes. Have some clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
- If you need an extra push to feel brave, wear adventure clothes. Remember, according to Chesterton, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
- A great pair of jeans is a gift.
- Vests are underrated and we should bring them back.
- Paris isn’t the only place with great style.
Thank you for reading! I had an absolute blast putting these outfits together this week. Also, if anybody needs help costuming a movie, call me. I’ll clear my schedule.