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Costume designers redefine genres

A-list panel blurs lines between contemporary, period, fantasy

At a stylish Wednesday night gathering of top costume designers at the Soho House in West Hollywood, the idea of placing contemporary, period and fantasy design into separate categories was given the deconstructionist treatment. In other words, it’s more complicated than it sounds.

“I call every film a fantasy at this point; some are more seeded in reality than others,” said Colleen Atwood, who had just won a Costume Designers Guild award the night before and will be vying for an Oscar on Sunday for “Alice in Wonderland.”

“When you read Charles Dickens, a man walking down the street (has) shoes that are from that year but his coat is from 10 years before and his shirt is five years old,” added Atwood. “With fantasy you can take an element from a different time, just like the fashion industry does, and do a whole look based on (the characters).”

For Sandy Powell, who created the vaguely 17th century, multi-zippered costumes for “The Tempest,” the concept of fantasy simply frees the designer from hard and fast rules. “I wasn’t thinking of it as being fantasy,” she explained. “I thought of it as timeless. It wasn’t set in a specific period, but we drew on different periods for reference and used contemporary elements from fashion.”

Moderator and CDG prexy Mary Rose asked the panelists — all nominated for CDG awards and/or Oscars — to consider the assumption that so-called contemporary designs constitute an easier medium.

“It’s difficult because everybody has an opinion,” said Ellen Mirojnick (‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’). She said that contemporary work at its best captures “the time in which we live, so there’s a reference later on to the world we lived in 20 years (from now).”

Added Julie Weiss, who was honored for career achievement this year by the CDG: “You’re expected to think ahead and what the trends might be…even though it’s character-driven and not magazine or fashion-driven.”

“The Social Network’s ” Jacqueline West said that “if you look in all of our closets, not everything is purchased today…Those individual choices we all make reveal the inner riches of each of our characters. I try not to worry about what’s to come in fashion.”

One development that surfaced was how helpful the Internet has become in researching clothes from different periods, even as far back as pre-WWII. Jenny Beavan, CDL award-winner and Oscar-nommed for “The King’s Speech,” said the Internet was “fantastically helpful,” explaining that on YouTube “you can actually see a lot of the events we were depicting.”For West, the subject of the film itself acted as a research tool. “It was ironic,” she said, “it was Facebook folding in on itself because all those kids were on Facebook and they documented their lives from the get-go…and it became, really, a period film even though it’s in the contemporary category because it’s the recent past.”

As for how the clothes reflect both hidden agendas and outward appearances, “Mad Men” designer Janie Bryant talked about Don Draper’s dove grey suit as his “armor” and ex-wife Betty’s need to keep up appearances. “Her whole character is about the facade of perfection, not how her character is inside,” said Bryant. “I love creating that perfect world for her even though she has such deep unhappiness.”

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