How Costume Designer Piero Tosi Dressed Up Cinema

Piero Tosi Luchino Visconti
Courtesy of Everett Collection

One of international cinema’s undisputed greats in costume design, Piero Tosi’s work first faced the awards season spotlight 64 years ago with only his third film, Luchino Visconti’s masterwork “Senso,” which competed for the Golden Lion in Venice in 1954.

Nominated for five Oscars for costume design and recipient of an honorary Oscar in 2013, Tosi’s impact on the art of film is immeasurable. Visconti’s films such as “The Damned,” “Ludwig,” “Death in Venice” and the incomparable “The Leopard” garnered international acclaim as stunning period visual masterpieces and were all spectacular showcases for Tosi’s celebrated designs. Other triumphs included “La Cage Aux Folles,” “The Night Porter,” Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” and Oscar foreign language film-winner “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Also noted as mentor and teacher for generations of costume designers, Tosi’s work in this field is on view in “Piero Tosi. Exercises on Beauty. The Years at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia 1988-2016” at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome until Jan. 20.

Tosi was first noted in the pages of Variety in 1962 for his award-winning work on Mauro Bolognini’s “La Viaccia.”

Did you go to the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 when “La Viaccia” premiered there?

I only went to one festival, the Venice Film Festival in 1949 as a spectator, when my aunt took me to see “La Terra Trema” by Luchino Visconti. It was the first time I left Florence, where I was born and raised. That film was a real shock and in that moment I knew I wanted to make movies. I remember there were many protests in the room at the end of the show and we even got to a fight between critics and spectators who were right and left political supporters. Visconti, a well-known liberal, was a director who split up critics and political opinion. However, my aunt and I could escape and not be involved. It was my first and only time attending a film festival. I didn’t even go when I had movies competing because I always focused on my work and I tried as much as possible to dodge social situations.

What was the state of the Italian film industry in those days?
I’ve never considered the existence of an Italian film industry. Over those years there were passionate and adventurous producers who tried realizing several genres of movies risking their own money. They were brave businessmen who often lost their money.

In this regard, I remember in 1963 while shooting Luchino Visconti’s movies “The Leopard,” we had a hard time keeping on shooting because our producer Goffredo Lombardo drastically cut the movie budget.

At that time he was simultaneously producing “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1963), directed by Robert Aldrich, and, as he made a very high investment for those two productions, he had to file for bankruptcy with reference to his Titanus production company. He sold all of his assets to settle his debts, but later returned producing very beautiful movies. In Italy there was no Star system as in America, there were small studios like Lux that designed films, but I wouldn’t call it an industry.

Andrea Sorrentino, left, and Piero Tosi

In 1961 you had worked with Visconti for a decade. Did Visconti change over the years you collaborated?
Luchino Visconti was the first director I worked with as a costume designer. I was introduced to him by Franco Zeffirelli, his assistant then, and Luchino entrusted me in 1951 with costume making for neorealist film “Beautiful.” Over the years we collaborated, his extremely strict demands for an accurate reenactment of historical climates or for “realistic” reenactment, for contemporary ones, never changed.

You worked in that time with Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Did those actors differ as to their approaches, perhaps from different experiences, hailing from different countries?
I found all of them had a commitment to seriously tackle the job. Burt Lancaster was prince of Salina in “The Leopard” and he spent a lot of time at the mirror dressed as his Sicilian character to find that pride and nonchalant royalty that made him “true” on screen.
Alain Delon, who I dressed on two occasions — “Rocco and His Brothers” and in “The Leopard” — was a simple boy who was also willing to let me mold him so he could get to be those characters, so incisive but totally different from each other.

In “La Viaccia,” Jean-Paul Belmondo played a man in the late 19th century Italy, in love with Claudia Cardinale. That young Frenchman’s athletic physicality was perfect for that charming and sweet Tuscan man’s role.

Marcello Mastroianni was a genuine man who didn’t like social life. When we shot away from Rome, he spent entire hours on the phone with his loved ones and at the time it was not easy to find a landline for a long-distance call. Everything is easier with mobile phones now.

Sophia had struggled a lot to succeed. She began as a walk-on, then she was a special guest, an actress in small roles until she became a star as an icon of Italian beauty recognized all over the world. I have dressed her on various occasions, especially in Vittorio De Sica’s films: “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and “Marriage Italian Style.” In this latter movie I wanted to make her a little less of a diva, but I was approached by her husband, Carlo Ponti, who was also the producer of the film and he told me: “Piero, remember the audience wants Sophia Loren!” I then understood they were selling the movie based on her image.

What did you think of Hollywood movies in those days?
I’ve always loved Hollywood cinema and I remember with pleasure all movies by Billy Wilder whom I consider as a comedy master as well as Blake Edwards who, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) gives us a beautiful Audrey Hepburn wonderfully dressed by French stylist Hubert de Givenchy. I was lucky enough to meet and dress her up, too, for the Italian portion of the movie “The Nun’s Story” (1959) by American director Fred Zinnemann.

Hollywood movies had their own identity in the past. Majestic and elegant scenes of Busby Berkeley’s musicals, as a child, made me dream, making me forget for a moment war and misery Italy was going through. “Ziegfeld Girls” (1941) with costumes by talented Adrian or the sophisticated comedies by George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch, where I admired the creations by my favorite American costume designer Travis Banton, transported me to magical distant, elegant and carefree worlds created to perfection by American film industry.

How was it working on “The Damned?”
In 1969 we shot with Luchino Visconti “The Damned,” which was a difficult film for me because of the heavy expectation I placed on the final result of my work. That 1930s German aristocratic setting demanded for me to deal with the great myths of my childhood: Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich wore wonderful clothes on screen and fashion magazines issued unrivaled creations by French designers like Vionnet, Patou and Molineaux. I didn’t know whether I could match that aesthetic figure of perfection. It was the late ’60s and fashion at that time proposed rigid fabrics to support the geometric and linear clothing styles. For soft and slippery lines typical of the early 1930s, I needed soft and drooping materials like crêpe and silk cadì. I had to use fur covers found in an old warehouse.

In the movie I had Ingrid Thulin as a leading actress, who was the opposite of the beauty standards of the time we were about to reenact: shaved eyebrows, small heart-shaped mouths and short hair were a must for a classy woman in that historical age. Ingrid was a polite and kind woman, but she pushed those radical changes back. I could change her gradually through great diplomacy and difficulty, getting to a good result. Luckily, we have the chance to use tricks in movies like wigs and special makeups to cover unwanted eyebrows. Ingrid had a natural style in wearing those elegant clothes that emotionally cost me a lot. In the end I was satisfied but, as usual for myself, never enough.

My goal was to rediscover, through movie characters’ look, the refined and sober style of the German world in that specific historical moment, different from glamor and the glossy and sexy image 1930s Hollywood America promoted through its movies.

Who was the best director you worked with?
There are two of them: Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini.

I’ve always been on the same page with Visconti and he’s the director I was able to be internationally successful with. Through his historical movies I could understand how a historical costume, along with a make-up and a hairstyle faithfully reenacted and accurate in all their details, could be important to convince the audience they had entered history and believe what they were seeing was reality and not fantasy.

Luchino belonged to that Italian nobility we often see in his movies and, as he grew up in that slick world, his stories and his settings are always true and never artificial. I’ve always had a hard time contributing with my work to create those pictorial images because I came from a simple middle-class family. I faced those films with a sense of fright and tried to prepare myself as much as possible by stocking up hundreds of documentation images and then drawing obsessively to find an idea that could satisfy me.

If everything was planned and organized in detail when working with Visconti, with Fellini everything was a great creative chaos to be seamlessly built up and taken apart. I had experimented that with him in “Fellini’s Satyricon” (1969) where I worked on makeup and hairstyles while my friend and colleague Danilo Donati was involved as a costume designer and set designer. We worked for eight months 5 a.m. through 8 p.m.

Federico gave me nonsense directions as for makeup and hairstyles, like: ‘This face must look like “dew”!’ I had to interpret those indications and try to realize them when he was always present. I had no time to finish a job, as he immediately had me take everything apart and then he changed his mind again. I remember all extras had to wear very different makeups and hairstyles from each other though sticking to those crazy directions. I kept a color palette with makeup colors in my hand and like a painter I painted half a face of the character and then make-up artists worked on the other half. When the drill was over, I would start again and move on to wigs and hairstyles with hairdressers. I was doing this work every day for hundreds of extras and actors.

I was replaced by Danilo Donati [on “Fellini’s Casanova”], who did a wonderful job, for which he won an Academy Award for costume design. I’ve never been obsessed with regard to awards even though I was lucky to win many of them, including four Oscar nominations. I was happy but never a slave because I always thought the best reward was the satisfaction for doing a good job. In 2013, Academy of Motion Picture awarded me with a career Oscar. They told me it was the first time in Oscars history this recognition was given to a costume designer. I was very flattered, especially thinking they had given it to me and not to Doris Day who was in the competition!

Costume designer Andrea Sorrentino studied under Piero Tosi in Rome and also worked as assistant for Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero.