Costume design, the footnote of a character

By Amirah Yasmin

Characters are canvases which are carefully painted to bring a film to life. Unlike novels or any other pieces of literature, it is a challenge to the screenwriters and filmmakers to neatly enlace all the small background details of their story in an average of two hours.

The difficulty of cramming elaborate details of characters on screen is lifted by the fact that films and screenplays tend to use the ‘show, not tell’ narrative to convey the plot.

Thus, upon the development of movies and television series, these creatives place footnotes in their story through the way the costumes of their characters are designed.

Apparels worn by the actors and actresses in films are not mere pieces of garments that are rented in the convenience of production. Instead, it shows the period setting, personality, and economic status of the character – if done properly.

One of the latest shows that was applauded for its costume design is ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. Gabrielle Binder, the costume designer successfully balanced historical accuracy, the character’s state of mind, and their economic status throughout the seven episodes. Every milestone in Beth Harmon’s life could be portrayed by the way she dresses without requiring the success to be forcefully indicated through speech.

Another interesting fact was how Beth Harmon looked like a pawn in the first episode of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and was dressed like a white queen in the final scene of the seventh (and last) episode. On the chessboard, it takes seven squares for the pawn to ascend and turn into a queen.

Apart from using fashion development to narrate Beth’s financial growth without having to shove dollar bills at the audiences’ screens, her fashion development also reflects the women she adored in life which included her foster mother, Cleo and 1960s celebrities.

This subtle way of storytelling allows the audience to understand the characters better despite the disadvantage faced by screenplays of not being able to elaborately word the scenario or character as done in books.

Additionally, costume design acts as an aid to the plot in describing character development. One of the forms of character development is when a significant character begins to replicate styles of another character as a result of the influence of the latter to the former.

This nature of costume design can be observed in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. The protagonist, Andrea ‘Andy’ Sachs could be seen from having zero interest in the fashion industry which reflected by her awful apparel mismatches to gradually borrowing designer clothes. At the climax of the film, her dress exactly mimics the one worn by the CEO of the company, Miranda Priestly. Without having to tell the audience, they could already understand that Andy’s character was influenced by Miranda.

An earlier attempt for this method of character design was from the mega-hit film, ‘Mean Girls’. Cady Heron’s fashion development throughout the movie from plain flannels and sneakers to miniskirts and high heels was immersed by the influence of Regina George

This was an alternate way by the film makers to show the change of character that occurred in the screenplay. After all, the ‘show, not tell’ strategy in plots allows the audience to actively enjoy the story since they are not forced to unwillingly consume huge chunks of information.

It should be informed that costume design is not exclusively limited to fashion-related genres. Harley Quinn, a widely known character from the DC universe showed progressive character development through her costumes in ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Birds of Prey’. Her character developed from being submissive to the Joker and dressed seductively for the men’s gaze to her ending the toxic relationship with the Joker while embracing her creative liberty in her outfit choices. This was a way to inform the audience that Harley Quinn has progressed into an empowered woman without requiring dragging monologues to prove it.

A conflict arises between the costumes designer’s creative liberty and the submission towards the accuracy of the screenplay setting. The 2020 Costume Design Oscar Winner ‘Little Women’ received a parcel of criticism for her inaccuracy in costume design with respect to the time period and socio-economy of the characters.

Although some inaccuracy sort of deserved the backlash such as the director’s decision to remove bonnets, a common headgear worn during the ‘Little Women’ time period ranged in the late 1800s, had no concrete reason to remove such historical element, a portion of the costume choices were made to make the characters’ traits more vibrant.

This could be shown in the colour palettes of fabrics worn by the characters especially the March sisters. In a normal household of their class, female siblings would resort to sharing dresses or wearing hand-me-downs as their daily apparel. The frequency of fabric purchase and lack of hand-me-downs in the film could be portrayed through the good quality of dresses worn by Amy, the youngest March sister.

The non-repetitive clothing portrayed in ‘Little Women’ was also odd to fashion and costume enthusiasts. The March family was neither introduced as extravagantly wealthy nor high class which begs the question of how they managed to obtain the capital to frequently purchase the apparels. In contrast to ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, there was no indication of an increase in household earnings for the March family in ‘Little Women’ except when Amy March followed Aunt March to Paris.

However, these broken rules of accuracy made by the film makers such as the ones in ‘Little Women’ are acceptable since it is a path to express the emotions and character personalities on screen. After all, it is a story, not a historical documentary.

These clash of priorities in costume design is a screenplay’s walk on a tightrope. The choices made for the characters’ costumes could either build the audiences’ favour towards the movie or break their ratings.

A failed attempt in costume design could be represented in the poor fashion choice by the writers of ‘Emily in Paris’. Throughout the series, there was no logical connection between Emily’s designer wardrobe with her income and interest in fashion as a whole. Additionally, the attempt to throw random Gucci and Louis Vuitton on Emily’s daily wear was an upsetting failure since most combinations made no sense besides informing the viewers that they were given a huge budget to film the series.

This is why costume design is not a sector that should be taken lightly. Like the rest of the building blocks needed to construct an impactful story, costume design plays an important role in determining whether the storyline would float or sink.

By the end of the day, screenplays are a form of art with numerous expressions unleashed from many dimensions. To appreciate the hard work put by the creators in illustrating a character, let us give attention to the details shown in costume designs. This may allow us to easily connect all random dots in the frame and experience a whole new panorama manifested through the footnotes of the screenplay’s character. ***

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