Sartorial Zeitgeist

Costumes not only reflect character, but the times in which we live

This article was corrected on Mar. 25, 2002.

Despite the advent of color councils, fashion forecasters and massive marketing campaigns, predicting which films will influence fashion remains an inexact science.

In simpler times, filmgoers would rush out to purchase the latest outfit worn onscreen by a favorite star — a look carefully crafted and promoted by studios and their wardrobe departments. Costumes in those days helped stars become icons more than the characters they played. The constancy of their images from film to film made them all the more influential.

With the advent of cinematic realism, actors began disappearing into roles. They may have worked with the same costume designer for numerous films, but their individuality took a back seat to storyline and character. Nowadays, films have lost their singular hold on an audience’s attention.

“It used to be a real event to go to the theater and see a movie in our parents’ day,” says costume designer Arianne Phillips.

Phillips notes that certain films still have the ability to become “cultural bookmarks and touchstones for us,” yet advertising, musicvideos, TV shows, print media, videogames and the Internet create a cross-pollination of influences.

To sway fashion choices now, a film’s characters must “capture the imagination of the public,” says costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild.

Character defines clothes

“A star might be on the cover of a fashion magazine wearing Versace, but people are not only seeing the star, they’re seeing the cumulative characters that star has played,” Landis explains. “It’s not about Cameron Diaz. It’s Cameron Diaz in ‘There’s Something About Mary.’ ”

Landis has designed for numerous films that have influenced fashion for this very reason. Consumers who bought leather bomber jackets after seeing her work for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” identified with the swashbuckling individuality of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.

“The costume designer, just like any artist or designer, is really a vessel for synergizing ideas, trends, future hopes, past traumas and temporary fears and celebrations, all of which create the perfect character and visual moment onscreen,” says Louise Coffey-Webb, curator of the costume collection at L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

This synergistic influence is felt in a more diffuse way than ever before, say fashion experts. It may show up in fabric choices, color palettes, silhouettes or embellishments.

Fashion designer Giorgio Armani says movies “are of course a continuing source of inspiration when designing my collections, although not necessarily in the expected way. More than the look or the costumes of a film, I find that something about a character, storyline or even mood of a film can leave a strong influence on me.”

The mood this year has shifted from an “outer Mongolia” trend to “the world of myths and legends,” says Kathy Deane, president of TOBE, a New York forecasting firm.

Fairy-tale influences such as earth and jewel tones, petal skirts, belled sleeves, caftans, tunics and laced-up closures showed up in spring collections by Carolina Herrera, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and Gucci.

These design elements no doubt stem from the popularity of “A Knight’s Tale,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which tap into the public’s desire for romantic idealism, magical solutions to the world’s problems and the need for a stronger connection to nature, says New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla.

Department stores still attempt to connect movies and consumers by ordering specially produced collections inspired by carefully chosen films.

Risky business

Picking box offices hits remains tricky, however, with retailers relying on forecasters and studio marketing departments for clues to which movie will rock the style boat. Period films, with their reinterpretation of the past, tend to have a greater impact than contemporary films.

Bloomingdales fashion director Kal Ruttenstein was confident enough in “Moulin Rouge” to open boutiques offering clothing inspired by the film inside stores in New York, Florida and Los Angeles.

Ruttenstein invited representatives from clothing lines BCBG, Anna Sui, Rebecca Taylor, Skinny Mini, Jessica McClintock and Necessary Objects to a sneak preview of the film, then asked them to design exclusive collections. Popular items include bone corseted evening dresses, petticoats, lingerie and colored fishnet stockings.

The boutique was launched with much fanfare in the Gotham store, with a media blitz involving Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor pulling the cord to open the “Moulin Rouge” windows on Lexington Avenue.

Professor Linda Tain of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology expects “Moulin” to remain a factor in the prom market this year.

Rather than referencing any specific dress, Tain says the look will include “corset seaming, lace in combination with satin or taffeta, fishtail trains and pieces of fabric (godets) inserted in skirts to create flair.”

Other recent films considered influential include “Gladiator” (ankle-wrapped leather sandals and sheer gauze gowns), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (vintage athletic suits), “Oceans Eleven” (antique Japanese obi fabric for tuxedo vests) and “Gosford Park” (a return to fitted formality).

And capturing the prize for designs that headed straight to the streets are Arianne Phillips’ creations for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

‘Rocky Horror’ redux

Working on a budget of only $25,000, Phillips reimagined thrift store clothes for the film, armed only with a sewing machine, a handful of helpers and a Bedazzler.

Phillips realized the film could become the next “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at a L.A. midnight screening. Hundreds of fans showed up to catch a costume contest featuring men and women bedecked in copies or re-interpretations of clothes Phillips created for John Cameron Mitchell’s rock goddess.

Her costumes seem to have tapped into an ’80s D.I.Y. revival. Phillips has been amazed by fans who have shown up at midnight screenings across the country in hand-crafted get-ups. She attributes their artsy-craftsy use of glue guns, sequins and scissors as a rejection of ’90s “luxury overload.”

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