‘Fashion is never finished’ proclaims Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, so confidently to his business partner. It merely changes its shape and style from time to time to accommodate the ever-changing tastes of the consumers. Almost by rule, fashion is not the same as it was an year before, no matter how chic and elegant it was praised to be back then.
This made me wonder as to how a costume designer for a film designs the clothes of the actors in the pre-production stages of the film making and yet manages to stay relevant at the time of the film’s release, as costumes account for an important aspect of visual communication and are an integral part of story-telling.
So as not to stay out of fashion, they need to think of something that has never been tried and that which is appropriate for the script. This presents a tough challenge to the costume designers as they not only have to anticipate the changes in fashion trends and design the costumes accordingly, but also have to carry the pressure of putting forth new styles out into the market. This is particularly true for ladies’ fashion as it might prove to be an overwhelming task to keep tabs on all the shifts in the latest trends of fashion.
Understanding the script and representing its spirit through the actors’ costumes is another crucial aspect to consider by the costume designers. They have to work along with the director very closely, so that there is no scope for any miscommunication between them, as that could pose a serious problem to the film in whole.
Working on a historical subject could prove to be much more difficult as they have to do a lot of research just to know what they are getting into. In the historical drama Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick, with the help of costume designers Milena Canonero, Ulla-Britt Söderlund create a sense of eighteenth century aristocratic English society and projected it onto the screen in a spectacular fashion which garnered them many praises and accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
The job of the film maker is to enhance the experience of the viewers through costumes, rather than impeding the process of storytelling. In a rare interview by Kubrick, when the interviewer Michel Ciment asks about the danger of losing oneself in details while working in an historical film, he replies ‘The danger connected with any multi-faceted problem is that you might pay too much attention to some of the problems to the detriment of others, but I am very conscious of this and I make sure I don't do that.’ Luckily for him, he had some of the best designers of the age at his disposal.
One other period film that is indeed very close to the hearts of many Indians is Gandhi(1982), directed by Richard Attenborough. John Mollo, the man behind the timeless costumes of Star Wars and the relatively unknown Bhanu Athaiya were put to the task of providing the costumes for this epic of a film. Countless extras and a long list of actors were dressed by them in the style that was prevalent in the pre-independent India the film was set in. Needless to say, the onus will be on the costume designers to deliver the right clothes in a period film like this, which requires both the western and Indian societies to be represented. They won the Academy Award for their efforts, and in the process, Bhanu Athaiya became the first ever Indian to receive an Oscar in any category.
On the other side of the spectrum, designing costumes for a futuristic film is not a piece of cake either. One might opt for the chilly and disconnected look of Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, both set more than a century from the time they were filmed. And one might also opt for the minimalist approach as showcased in Rian Johnson’s science fiction thriller Looper, which doesn’t attempt to try anything glaringly obvious, but employs just enough innovation to make us feel that we are indeed in the future. Both of the above approaches could be wrong if they do not comply with the themes that the script tries to portray.
Whatever period the film may be set in, an efficient costume designer always works within the bounds of the script and comprehends what is required of him and delivers it, irrespective of his own ideas, which may not be suitable for the project that he is working on.
- Open Face Team
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