If the Play’s the Thing, You Still Need Fabulous Costumes

mirror mirror julia roberts greenwood 615“Costumes are the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth – it really does establish who they are.” Colleen Atwood, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design ten times and won for the movies ChicagoMemoirs of a Geisha and Alice in Wonderland .

One of the perks of living in this part of southern California is that each year my daughter and I can visit the Fashion Institute of Design Museum (FIDM) and see the costumes nominated for the Emmy Awards and then later in the year, the ones nominated for Academy Awards. Yesterday we traveled into the heart of Los Angeles to see the latter, as well as some other selected movie costumes that were lent to the exhibit.

As the FIDM website says in describing the exhibit: “Including costumes from A Royal AffairAnna KareninaArgo, Django UnchainedHitchcockLes MisérablesLincolnMirror MirrorSkyfallSnow White and the Huntsman, and other films, the exhibition will offer visitors a close-up view of the costumer’s art.” Does it ever! There’s nothing between you and the costumes, although the very friendly but vigilant guards will prevent you from touching the items or taking photographs. It’s amazing to be an inch away from the wonderful details of fabric, buttons and findings that you’ll never see even on the biggest screen and marvel at the intricacies and thought that went into the design.

There were also outfits from “Hunger Games,” “Avengers,” John Carter of Mars” and others.

Part of the fun is being in the presence of clothing worn by so many famous people and visualizing the actors in the costumes. I’m here to tell you most of these leading ladies are tiny. But Chris Helmsworth and Daniel Craig – definitely big, buff guys, judging by the costumes LOL. And Ben Affleck has really broad shoulders, going by his Argo jacket. It was awe inspiring to stand in front of Daniel Day Lewis’s “Lincoln” costume and imagine not so much the actor (wonderful as he is) but Lincoln himself.

The Hunger GamesThe Katniss everyday costumes from Hunger Games were interesting for the tiny touches that said these are real clothes, worn by a real girl in the hardscrabble District 12. There are tiny holes at the knee of the pants and in the worn shirt, and the dress has ground in dirt you’d never be able to wash out, just as you might expect in a place where the coal dust would be ever present.

My daughter and I walked through the exhibit three times. Her favorite was the amazing wedding dress from Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe tied with the Julia Roberts dress from “Mirror Mirror.”

Surprisingly, because it was a dud movie (IMHO), the costumes from “John Carter of Mars” were my favorites. The detail was amazing john-carter-movie-image-31-e1329520416937and we both fell in love with the golden dress Dejah Thoris wore at some point in that interminable movie.  The costume I kept going back to was a warrior from the same film – the uniform had elements that reminded me of the Elves from Lord of the Rings and I thought it would work well for my Ancient Egyptian warriors. (This exhibit really makes an author wish they could see the clothing that embodies characters from their books, let me tell you!)

snow-white-and-the-huntsman-beetle-wings-colleen-atwood-1-537x402But I also spent a lot of time gazing at the feather cloak from Huntsman and an amazing turquoise and green dress Charlize Theron must have worn in the movie, although I didn’t recall it. Decorated with shiny faux beetle wings!

There was also a FIDM exhibit of cotton dresses from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, so we admired Regency day dresses and reticules, and clothing that could have been worn on the Titanic….

And a selection of items from the “costume designers” of the animated film ParaNorman, including their idea boards with bits and pieces and a set of dolls of each character, with the most incredible tiny details, which again won’t show up on any screen, but which flow into creating the wholeness and believability of the character.

One more fun quote to close the subject. Although Once upon A Time  is television, not movies, we did see the OAUT costumes during the FIDM exhibit of the Emmy-nominated costume designers. “The costumes are insane on ‘Once Upon a Time.’ It did influence my taking the job, the fact that not only would I be horseback riding and sword fighting and traipsing through the woods but I would be doing all those things in insane, medieval garb.” Ginnifer Goodwin

And let a Costume Designer have the final word…Jill Ohanneson, Costume Designer for HBO’s Six Feet Under describes the difference between Costume Design Vs. Dress (Fashion) Designs:

“When you’re dress designing, you’re dressing bodies with typical aspects—curves and hips and shoulders. But in costume design you’re designing for a character. You don’t have to just design pants and a shirt and a tie. You’re also designing sadness and droopiness and wiltiness. There are so many emotional ways that we play with—color and texture and patterns and the way things hang that contribute to what the character is really about.” 

And we, the Audience, thank you!

Read my account of the FIDM Emmy-nominated costumes here.


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