A touch of class

Costumes separate the haves from the have-nots

The guests crowding a country ball at the start of “Pride & Prejudice” seem ready for an 18th-century mosh pit. Men and women frolic around the hall in flowing linen gowns and soft cloth jackets — all of warm, earth-tone colors. As Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Durran notes, “they look rough and ready.”

Then the wealthy Londoners arrive. Their haughty airs and appearance — Mr. Darcy in a dark and stiff silk jacket, Caroline Bingley in a bright white gown from Paris — bring the music momentarily grinding to a halt. Jane Austen’s two social classes, one born rich and the other working class, mingle awkwardly, separated by a chasm of status and Durran’s onscreen clash of couture.

In “Pride & Prejudice” and a slew of other films last year, tales of haves and have-nots filled the screen. “Match Point” sets social-climbing interlopers loose in upper-class British playgrounds, while “Cinderella Man” follows a Depression-era down-and-out boxer desperate to climb back on top. In the rags-to-riches “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a poor girl journeys to the heights of glamour; and in “Shopgirl,” a retail ingenue chooses between a rich benefactor and a struggling slacker.

To illuminate these characters’ contrasts in station, costume designers created parallel armies of threadbare suits and muddy boots, and silk gowns and polished shoes. Sometimes the economic cues are bold, like the grand patterns of the geisha’s kimonos. Often, though, designers rely on small touches — like the stiff cut of Mr. Darcy’s jacket — to reveal a character’s attitude and status.

Austen’s Bennet family is desperate to marry into money, an opportunity that appears with the arrival of the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy. To capture their disparate circumstances, Durran enlisted different costume houses — a slick one for the polished Bingleys, and a more “handstitched” one for the homemade-looking Bennets.

“You have to do what you can to tell the story and hope people will get it,” Durran says. “People probably subliminally notice that some characters are wearing dirty cloth and linen and others are wearing silk.”

The film also plays with time to accentuate the families’ economic differences. The Bennets’ clothes “are stuck in the 1790s,” while Caroline Bingley wears styles from after 1800. Audiences may not detect the difference, but Bingley’s country neighbors do: At a second ball, women ditch their earth-tone dresses for dignified white gowns like the one Caroline Bingley wore to the first one.

“Everyone is trying to catch up with her,” Durran says.

Costumes are also used to show Mr. Darcy’s evolution as he comes to love Elizabeth Bennet and let go of his snobbery. “By the end of the film he’s wearing a completely different cut of jacket, much looser,” she says.

In “Cinderella Man,” prizefighter Jim Braddock, played by Russell Crowe, also struggles to restore his family’s fortunes. Costume designer Daniel Orlandi wanted to capture the “sadness” of New York City during the Great Depression, but realized Dust Bowl-style rags wouldn’t work because people still had suits even after the stock market crash. Instead Orlandi selected clothes for Braddock’s family that, while threadbare and wrinkled, showed them “down, but not out.”

“They were poor, but they still had their pride. Their clothes were mended, but they were clean,” he says.

As Braddock begins to rise, he can afford finer clothing but still remains practical. In a nightclub scene before his 1935 match with champion Max Baer, Braddock dons a modest suit while Baer arrives in a tux trimmed with silver fox and flanked by “glittery, floozy girls.”

“It’s like the grasshopper and the ant,” says Orlandi. “One is saving for winter, the other is out frolicking.”

In “Memoirs of a Geisha,” costumes not only accent status, they define it. Kimonos were the “couture dress” of their time, says costume designer Colleen Atwood, who was nominated by both the Costume Designers Guild and the Academy for her efforts.

Before completion, an individual piece — which cost a vast sum of money — passed through many artists’ hands. Geisha-to-be Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) begins the movie in an impoverished fishing village wearing a patchwork of hand-sewn, recycled fabrics — what Atwood calls “the clothing of poverty.” Later, as she reaches Kyoto and eventually becomes geisha trainee Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), she graduates from a “dirty peasant kimono” to a fine one.

Atwood, who researched by visiting modern-day Japanese geisha teahouses, says she designed “movie kimonos” that were sexier and more willowy than authentic ones. Where a great kimono can be distinguished by a single gold thread on a black dress, Atwood relied on more camera-friendly bold colors and patterns to trace Sayuri’s ascension to “one of the supermodels of her time.”

In the elegant “Shopgirl,” Claire Danes’ Mirabelle must choose between the sophisticated, Armani-wearing Ray Porter, played by Steve Martin, and Jason Schwartzman’s Jeremy, who dresses by picking clothes off his apartment floor.

Danes starts out wearing loose-fitting vintage clothes — much like guild nominee Nancy Steiner did in her 20s. But as Mirabelle dates Ray, who begins his courtship by sending her elegant evening gloves, she sheds her somewhat baggy outfits for sexier, tighter-fitting clothes. When Mirabelle finally dons a gown for Ray, “you see how gorgeous she is, and how beautiful her body is,” Steiner says.

By the end of the film, Danes wears black — a “severe” color that Steiner says signifies her new confidence. And, in the logic of “Shopgirl’s” dress code, Schwartzman trades in his T-shirt for a (white) suit to woo Mirabelle back.

In “Match Point,” the Hewett family wears clothing “as expensive-looking as possible” — a sign of their old-money status, says costume designer Jill Taylor.

“It’s very much a closed world and hard to break into,” adds Taylor, who dressed the Hewetts in handmade shirts, Chanel and fine clothing from London’s gentlemen’s outfitters.

As Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ social-climbing Chris Wilton insinuates himself into the Hewetts’ rarefied world, he swaps his tennis whites and jeans for increasingly expensive suits and cashmere sweaters.

In a film where dress reflects social fate, Scarlett Johansson’s Nola Rice, who experiences a failed engagement to Tom Hewett, wears trendy, causal clothes purchased at the High Street equivalent of H&M. The clothing marks her as an outsider in the Hewetts’ world.

“She never wore suitable clothes for his mother,” Taylor says. “It’s all very subtle things.”

The goal is to tell a story, not make a fashion statement. “You try to do it so that people sense it, but don’t see it,” “Cinderella Man’s” Orlandi says. “I’m proud the costumes almost disappear.”

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