Prexy says design is 'based in literature,' not just style and glamour

Costume Designers Guild president Deborah Nadoolman Landis takes her role as worldwide spokeswoman for her peers very seriously.

While researching available books on designers for a doctoral dissertation, she was disheartened to find a paltry selection of writings, many of them misleading.

To correct what she sees as “a marginalization of costume design through the years” and writers’ tendency to confuse it with fashion, Landis set out to elevate the field to its rightful place in film history. The result is the illuminating volume “Costume Design,” part of Focal Press’ Screencraft series, featuring interviews with 14 of the world’s most influential designers.

In a brief introduction, Landis tackles the misconception that costume designers’ jobs are about style and glamour. “Costume design is based in literature,” Landis says. “Costumes don’t exist unless there’s a script or a play. Our focus is creating credible characters and actualizing fictional people.”

Rather than provide a lecture on design, Landis lets behind-the-screen costumers like James Acheson, Milena Canonero, Jeffrey Kurland, Piero Tosi and 10 others talk about the process.

Glorious photos accompany the interviews, yet Landis insists on the importance of the text. In their own words, the designers dispel the notion that designing contemporary films is akin to shopping for clothes or that period films are the most difficult to do.

“The biggest challenge for us is transformative contemporary costume — to take a known actor and have them shift from a personality on the red carpet to a character in a serious drama,” Landis explains.

“Everyone reads fashion magazines, everyone goes shopping, everyone lives their life today, and what we try to do is help actors be chameleons in present time — to become other contemporary people — and that’s the toughest sell with costume design. If you’re doing a biblical story, people really don’t know exactly what they looked like. There’s a suspension of disbelief.”

Landis’ book makes a serious contribution to the existing literature, which focuses mostly on early Hollywood glamour films or the label-driven red carpet.

For Landis, we are living in the golden age of Hollywood costume design, in which filmmakers embrace every genre of film. Her intention is not to turn costume designers into stars but to underscore their contributions as cinematic storytellers.

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