Name your favorite period film. “Cleopatra”? “Barry Lyndon”? How about “Gone With the Wind”? Affection for the story line and characters aside, many people would cite the costumes as one reason they love these films.
Elizabeth Taylor’s dazzling hair pieces, Ryan O’Neal’s wigs, Vivien Leigh’s breathtaking dresses — each seduces the viewer into a distant time frame and convinces them that what they’re watching is somehow real. And it works! Never mind that the real Egyptian queen shaved her head, that O’Neal’s co-star Marisa Berenson’s makeup was right out of the ’70s, or that the South never saw so much hoop in their skirts.
The truth is that, while the overall aesthetic evoked by these and other period films may be accurate, technically they often miss the mark. Anachronisms can be found in almost all period films. Reasons vary from audience preferences to the unavoidable requirements of the photographer. Besides, by Hollywood standards, history is open to interpretation. And what fun would it be if costume designers were not allowed to create?
“This is a fantasy and an art,” says Sandy Powell, whose credits include “Interview With the Vampire” and “Orlando,” and whose work currently is seen in the Miramax film “Wings of the Dove.” “Designers have to be allowed to take certain liberties. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
“Wings” director Iain Softley took liberties with the film, based on the Henry James novel, by setting the 1902 story in 1910. As Softley told the Los Angeles Times, “I wanted to give people the view that this was the beginning of the world we know. By 1910, fewer women were wearing corsets — and in fact the designs for women’s clothes mirrored some of (contemporary fashion designer) Issey Miyake’s pleated dresses.”
Powell took further liberties by using brighter colors, and more flowing, unstructured garments than the period actually allowed. But the hats, she says, “could have been bigger. I just couldn’t be utterly realistic there. Then the cameraman starts yelling.”
In spite of Softley and Powell’s liberties, audiences come away from the film convinced they’ve witnessed something totally authentic. “The audience will let you get away with murder,” Powell explains. “They go to the cinema wanting to be convinced. Only industry types go to a film very critical and cynical, looking to poke holes. The audience, on the other hand, is very accepting.”
If the audience can live without needlepoint accuracy, designers can too. “Re-creation is for the museum’s costume collection. I don’t see re-creation as my job. I’m an interpreter,” says Carol Oditz, the woman who put Kevin Klein in hip-hugging, wide lapel suits for Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.” “I’m here to explore the deeper levels of form, symbol and pattern. I take people to another level.”
Oditz’s goal with her authentic-appearing costumes was to “illustrate the tension in the characters’ lives.” This was accomplished not by recycling vintage pieces or even buying the retro fashions that have appeared on today’s haute couture runways. Instead, Oditz studied art, then designed her own costumes. Her greatest inspiration came from the work of Hockney, Katz, Wesselman and Ruscha, among others.
“These artists were the masters of surface tension, which is a kind of patterning that lacks depth of field, and has to do with how things vibrate off each other on one plane,” she says. “I knew if I could get to the essence of surface tension, I would find the heart and soul of these early ’70s clothes. Emotionally, it said so much about who they were.”
But in the end, the issue of make-believe might present the single most appealing element of period films for the audience and actor alike. In an interview with Greer Garson about her role in the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice,” she said, “I think all of us have often thought how interesting it would be to live in a different age and time. Imagination is at best a poor substitute for reality. My role as Miss Bennet was one of the happiest I ever played. Each night after work it was like stepping out of one world into another. I always hated to take off the colorful costumes and put on slacks, feeling something like Cinderella after the ball.”