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HomeCraftsCostumes: Costume Designers Roundup

Costumes: Costume Designers Roundup

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Costume design is a craft that helps to tell a story. The work of costume designers starts with the script; they have to possess a sense of fashion, storytelling and the ability to relate the actors to their assigned characters.There’s truth in the saying that “clothes make the man.” Sam Elliot, the late Jack Elam and John Wayne would not have been able to proceed with their roles without the help of just the right hat, for example.Costume designers consult myriad sources for original garments. Some have spent a lifetime buying up old studio wardrobe departments and combing through consignment shops, thrift stores and flea markets to find original vintage garments and accessories. Many designers have specific pieces reproduced by skilled pattern-makers and seamstresses for large scenes involving extras and nonprincipals.Period costumes present unique challenges that films set in contemporary times do not—especially when it comes to fabric and cut.Below the Line asked costume designers Arianne Phillips (recently nominated for an Oscar for her work on Walk the Line) and Jacqueline West (whose recent work on Terrence Malick’s The New World epitomized period costume design) about their craft and their unique sources for materials and garments.Below the Line: What is the basic process you go through when designing a costume?Jacqueline West: First I read the script several times. Often as many as six or seven times before I even start. Edith Head taught me that. That way you get to know the characters from the inside out, and they almost dress themselves. Then I start researching. I look at as much as I can on the subject and read as many books as I can that I feel relate to the script and the times. Sometimes literary descriptions are more vivid and complete than pictures. Then I start to sketch ideas. Sometimes I use a sketch artist for showing more details to the director and the actors. I then start swatching, for the fabric is everything and usually dictates much about the cut and feel of a wardrobe piece. Once the drawings are approved by the director, if the actor is available, I’ll meet with him or her and start production for an initial fitting.Arianne Phillips: The process varies with every project. The story, the intent, and the action in the scene play the biggest part. I always ask myself, do I have to build this costume? And if so why? I don’t believe that just because I am a costume designer I have to make something from scratch for it to be valid or important. I do believe it’s very important a lot of the time, so I choose where and when I build these costumes to serve the story, and make sure on the practical side the costumes will have screen time. Since I always seem to work on films where I never have enough money, I have to choose carefully which costumes I am going to design vs. find or rent. Once I have committed to building the costume, the process can be inspired by such things as what is the motivation of the scene? The motivation of the character? The emotional tone? What feeling do I want to underscore? How will it make the actor feel on a visceral level? How can I assist the scene, the story? The color, fabric, silhouette, all that “heady” stuff. I love to give the costumes a backstory. I love a “method” costume.BTL: When you get a script for a new film, after reading it, do you think, “How can I bring this script to life? Does the overall mood look or feeling of each scene influence your designs?West: The script is where it all starts, definitely. It is why the actors and the whole crew are there, to put the written page on the screen, much the way your mind creates a picture in your head when you read a novel. You see it when the writing is good. A good script is everything for me. The characters in a good script become real and I can see them dressed a certain way when I get to know them. I feel I know what their wardrobe choices would be. As a designer you get excited to bring them to life.Phillips: If the script is good, and I connect to the story, absolutely!BTL: Do you rely on prototypes or sketches and illustrations of the costumes when collaborating with the director, production designers and actors for each project?West: I rely on all of them. Sometimes I’ll find an original when doing a period film that needs only a bit of changing and use it for my show-and-tell. When I find a wonderful original I can use, of course I do. That makes me euphoric. Sometimes I use images from paintings of the period and often sketches to show the director.Phillips: Sometimes, depending on what kind of rhythm and timeline we have in the prep. Sometimes it is sketches, collaged boards, research, image flip books; other times I cut to a muslin directly draped on a form or a vintage or existing garment. Whatever visual I need to help illustrate my ideas.BTL: Who usually decides the color palette you work in?West: The director usually has a color palette in mind when he visualizes his film on screen, when he sees his story. And the time and place of the script often dictates a palette. Once we meet with the director I usually work very closely with the art department on each scene so it looks like one movie. One would never put a bright blue waistcoat in one of production designer Jack Fisk’s beautiful Caravaggio-esque sets.Phillips: It’s different on every project. Often the film quality, stock or the way it will be processed or lit determine our perimeters. I would say it is almost always collaborative between the director, DP, production designer and myself.BTL: How do you find your sources for fabric? Which vendor has been your most reliable source? West: It varies from film to film of course but on The New World I obtained a lot of the furs from fur traders. At one point we had to get a fur trading license to import furs across state lines into Virginia. But we often relied on the generosity of the Parks Department there that loaned us skins of animals that had been killed accidentally. The native tribesmen of the area were also very generous, giving us feathers, shells and antlers. Chief Two Eagles Green of the Patawomac Tribe was our biggest benefactor. He helped us not only in that respect but with information and inspiration. He was my most reliable source on this film for sure.Phillips: I had a wonderful, stellar crew on Walk the Line who had fantastic resources, and between my own resources and my crew, we had pretty great coverage.BTL: Do you collaborate with special craftspeople who work in unusual skills such as embroidery, appliqué, beading, leather smiths, unusual textiles?West: On The New World I had the most wonderful crew of artisans. They were all from the Virginia area. They were local union members, all artists in their own right and the most creative group I have ever had assembled in one room. Andy Richardson [costumer] was a rare breed. He sometimes works as a think-tank mathematician. On this film he constructed some of the most fabulous leather costumes for Pocahontas and reconstructed Powhatan’s shell cape, mathematically calculating bead placement. I couldn’t have done this show without him. Lynalise Woodlief, a fabulous local studio artist and costumer, did all my bead and metalwork. She did an extraordinary job on Powhatan’s jewelry and Wes Studi’s war cape in copper. Gillian Brown made my masks and Jenny McGurk did my feather work and did many of the great headdresses, and Karen Wolf was my wonderful cape painter. Susan Antonelli, my assistant, helped so much with the creation of Pocahontas’ wardrobe. I cannot forget Robert Surat, my fabulous tailor and Cathy Washington, a wonderful leathermaker who made many of the brilliant breech clouts unique to this tribe. Sean Tribble is my brilliant ager-dyer.Phillips: Impossible to pick one. For Walk the Line, the top of my list would be vendors Palace Costume, Repeat Performance, Dykeman-Young, Doris at The Way Wore, the now defunct John David Ridge and some others that I will keep i
n my special private black book!BTL: Jacqueline, your film The New World, and Arianne, your film Walk the Line both had very believable period costume design. How did you do your research to recreate the realism and functionality of the costumes?West: The research was limited on this film. There was brilliant research available for the colonists and wonderful paintings from the period. For the natives, there was little. I had to rely on the writings and descriptions of John Smith himself and Henry Spellman who lived with these Indians in the early 17th century. Their lifestyle dictated the functionality of their wardrobe, as it did for the colonists who brought one suit of clothes and wore them till they fell off their bodies or until they died and they were taken from them by others or bequeathed to others.Phillips: David Bomba, production designer, as well as director Jim Mangold and I had amassed loads of research which we shared with each other. Lucky for us, there are plenty of images out there of Johnny Cash and June Carter, and we were lucky enough to get some family images which shed light on their private lives. We focused on the juxtaposition of the public-performance personas versus their private lives. This was part of the intimate and subtle underscoring of these two lives that Jim encouraged us to explore, and of course to always be authentic, even when creating our own aesthetic cinematic language.BTL: Jacqueline, how would you describe the challenges and differences between designing period films like Quills and The New World to a film set in a more modern day, like your latest feature The Visiting? Arianne, same question for the period film Walk the Line and your previous, contemporary film Identity?West: My biggest challenge on The New World was that it entailed designing two very different worlds that collide on the screen. That difference had to help tell the story of that first encounter and underline the psychological differences in these two peoples. Quills created a similar problem in that I was depicting two very opposed eras, Ancienne and Regency, before and after the Revolution. That also seemed to be almost two different films rolled into one. As far as the difference in a period piece versus a contemporary film, they are basically the same in theory. Once you know your characters, you take them shopping in the period they live in. The character tells you what their choices would be within what was available to them given their social status and the time and place they lived. Certain types make certain personal choices that reveal their own inner riches no matter if they lived way in the past or now. For period films, you make most of the principal wardrobe and for contemporary you often shop. That is the main difference.Phillips: Well, the big difference for me was the sheer number of costumes. Since Walk the Line is a story of John and June’s lives up until 1969, costumes, like the production design, cars, locations, were key in transporting us into [the world of] Johnny Cash as a young boy in Arkansas in the ’40s through to Folsom Prison in 1968. On Walk the Line, we had places in the script where we were recreating real events, so there was research we had to do to recreate them as accurately as possible.

Written by April MacIntyre

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