Costume: A Game Changer?

As explained in a previous post, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum (or V&A for fans and locals) in London recently. It’s definitely my favorite museum in London, maybe the UK, possibly Europe. If you haven’t been there yet, that in and of itself would justify a trip to one of the greatest cities in the world. That fact is not the only reason I paid it a visit that weekend though, because I had received word that they were holding a new exposition: Hollywood Costume. And, being the film geek I am, I would not be worthy of such a title if I didn’t go and check it out. It was definitely worth the money (student discount ftw people, 4 whole pounds off!). Seeing as I am also an Art History major, I checked up on the Renaissance hall as well. Lovely as usual, just so you know. Yes, I am lobbying to get you to go there. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, I’ll just say it out loud. I LOVE that place.

Anyways, the exposition. You walk in, and it’s pretty dark. First thing you see is a supercut of scenes featuring some of the most iconic costumes ever recorded on film. And all of them – every SINGLE one – are on display in the halls behind that wall. Aside from it being dark, and everything having a black background, the music is just epic. Soundtracks. EPIC soundtracks, immersing you in a mood suitable for an exposition such as this one. If I recall correctly, there were three halls, and they all had certain themes, but honestly: I didn’t pay attention to any of that. I was just there for the costumes, and the first hall alone already blew me away. It was amazing. Sooooo amazing. I loved it. That hall also left me with the most emotional moment that I experienced in that exhibition (and there were quite some). At one point, you come up to two paired costumes. Jeans, jacket, shirt. All in natural colors, slightly faded. Leather boots. Cowboy hats. The costumes worn by the two leads from Brokeback Mountain: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

At this point, I had just exited a major obsession with the latter actor. Probably spawned by the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises last summer. My obsessions can get pretty intense, and that was the case with this one as well. I watched several films in which he starred, and I googled him (which led me to another article: it IS freaky!). Seeing those costumes there, in a pose, with that black background, picture right next to it, you could almost see him in the costume. It was really strange. It was as if he was THERE, right in front of you. Creepy, almost, but in a good way. I think this was the costume I spent the most time with.

It only shows how effective costumes are as a tool in a movie, and how big of an impact they can have on a viewer. I already briefly mentioned it here: just like the soundtrack of a film, costume is very important in bringing across the statement or message or idea or whatever it is that a film wants to convey. However, most don’t recognize the importance of costume design as a facet in the whole of the film. I have this book: 100 Ideas That Changed Film, by David Parkinson. Obviously, 100 factors influencing the development of film are listed, with explanation, in chronological order. It begins with “Magic lanterns” and ends with “Computer-generated imagery”. In between you can find some things that we now take for granted, such as feature films, Hollywood, the Oscars, trailers, and sequels. Obvious turning points are included as well. such as the introduction of sound and color. Even the invention and use of the musical score is listed. But not costume design. The chapter on “Mise en scène” is probably what comes closest.

That’s not close enough  for my taste. So I have tried to think logically about this, because there might be some good reasons for not including it. For instance, it has always been there. Costume design was not invented at some point along the history of film. It was always there. You can’t have your actors running around naked when they’re on a horse chasing a train at full speed in a western! Also, I don’t think there has been a moment when costume design was revolutionized, as is the case with certain genres, or the studio system. This means that it might be less interesting. I don’t agree!

The book accompanying the V&A exposition (which you can find here) includes some fascinating articles and essays. One author mentions that the introductions of both sound and color posed big problems for costume design. Sound meant that every little thing was recorded. The rustling of fabric, the clicking of heels, the rattling of jewelry, all was now amplified. It was distracting. The same was the case with color. Designers couldn’t use whatever material anymore, because they could be recognized, and might not be suitable to the film. That was distracting as well. And if there is one thing that costumes shouldn’t be, it’s distracting! Both these problems were overcome though, and many more as well. This is expected, and the designers delivered. That is a big accomplishment, and I believe it should be recognized as such.

It does seem as if there is a development towards acceptance and recognition of costume design. For instance, my The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tie-in has a big focus on the costume design for the various characters. It basically is an overview of all the major characters, including the thirteen dwarves. This high number of characters from the same species meant that a lot of thought and work was put in their individualism. It was emphasized, so that the viewers could more easily identify each one of them. On the other hand, the wonderful score for the film was – sadly – completely ignored. As were decor design plus some other aspects which were included in my Lord Of The Rings trilogy tie-in. Maybe we have to wait for this trilogy to end as well, before we can have a book like that one? That should not be a reason though! It should be possible to admire ALL aspects of film production for each installment of the series.

The script, the screenwriting, the actors, the director, all those major Oscar-categories are very important. I’m not downgrading them. But I do think that the soundtrack, and especially costume design too, should receive some more acknowledgement. Because they bring across the film’s idea, without being obvious about it. They’re not allowed to be obvious about it! Maybe they don’t really convey the message, as much as they support the message that those major tools are bringing across. This doesn’t mean that they should be disregarded. The idea of a division between conveying and supporting only limits the possibilities of a medium. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t think it is here. It pushes those who work in this field to come up with solutions to problems they might not have imagined ever coming across. Pushing means that the continuous development of the medium might at some point actually turn into a revolution. Which might merit a mentioning in a 150 Ideas That Changed Film. All costume designer push, with flair. A lot of it.

So. When the 2013 Oscars hit us, please hang around for all of the categories. Not just the opening number, after which you pursue some zapping back and forth in order to see if Best Film has been awarded yet to the movie you bet your money on. Costume design might have been a big factor in making that happen.

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