Costume design in cinema

Athira Gopal k
5 min readApr 1, 2022

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Costumes can be thought of as tools that help filmmakers tell their stories. As a means of self-expression, clothing can reveal the inner workings of a protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) mind and how they see themselves or desire to be seen.

‘Cruella’; Image source: independent

With the ongoing debate about ‘dress to impress’ and ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ its truly natural to know if what you wear matter. Well the answer is yes what you wear matters in the aspect of film atleast. If you look at Jenny Beavan a well-known costume designer with over 40 years of experience and eleven Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design you would know how big a difference her contribution made on the movie, Cruella. She previously won an Academy Award for her performances in A Room With A View (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The British costume designer, won Best Costume Design at the 94th Academy Awards.

Costume design has a long and illustrious history. Aeschylus, an ancient Greek playwright from the 5th century B.C., designed unique costumes for actors to wear when playing his plays. Scenery and costumes became increasingly important parts of theatre performances during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They assisted in the capture of a mood, the creation of an exciting colourful event, and the entertainment of audiences. People dressed up like they did in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare’s actors wore their own clothing in his own company. Some itinerant theatrical troupes in the 16th century performed a style of theatre known as commedia dell’arte. It featured classic figures including the serving girl, the doctor, and the harlequin in costumes. By glancing at the outfits, everyone in the crowd knew what these figures stood for.

Due to an expansion in stage performances and travelling theatrical troupes, and because more people had become aware with the clothing of cultures around the world, a demand for greater accuracy in costume design began to take hold from the 1770s to the 1870s. Costume design became a more specialised art in the nineteenth century, and two major ideas poured into it. The first was historical accuracy, or capturing the feel of a particular era. The other was concept-driven, with clothing capturing a vision that had nothing to do with a known historical period or location. Consider today’s movies and television shows, and you’re bound to come up with a few examples of each.

The wardrobes are expertly executed, well researched, and, most importantly, the clothes was used as a visual language to weave a narrative about the characters and improve the story in each case. What a character wears in a film might reveal a lot about them. The wardrobe of a character can reveal a lot about the time period in which the film was made, the individual’s occupation, and his or her financial situation. Whether the character was designed to blend into their environment or stick out from it, costume design plays an important but sometimes overlooked role in making a movie memorable and making the characters amazing.

When most people think of costumes, they think of Halloween costumes and individuals dressing up to look like someone else. While this assumption is correct, it is only to a certain extent. The majority of film costume designs seek to create authentic and realistic characters on screen.

A character’s costume could be designed to situate them in a specific time period. Gone with the Wind, an award-winning and one of the best-selling films of all time is set during the American Civil War in 1939. There is no such thing as a film costume design template. Every film has its own aesthetic, and the costumes are supposed to complement that aesthetic, whether it’s realism or ostentation. The costume designers guild honours its members each year for their greatest work. Whether for theatre, film, or television, costume design is a must.

The variety of shoes in the opening moments of Strangers on a Train could provide viewers with a tip as to who is wealthy and who is a regular person. The type or colour of the varied shoes might lead to a variety of conclusions. The importance of costume design in the development of a film’s characters cannot be overstated. Costume designers employ colour, shape, fabric, and juxtaposition after carefully studying the screenplay and storey. These creative artists play a crucial role in the formation of a character by meticulously constructing every aspect of the costume in which our cinematic characters are veiled.

A good example to show the influence in film is the 2006 winner for Best Costume Design-MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Atwood admits that some sacrifices were made in terms of accuracy when designing the kimonos for this three-time Oscar-winning film, Memoirs of a Geisha. Atwood noted, “the subtlety of an actual geisha dress wouldn’t have the right impact on film…We were taking an art form that is a huge part of Japanese culture but it was important to remember that we were making a movie based on a book of fiction, written by a guy, about a geisha. It is not a documentary film.”

Hatsumomo, the bitter yet beautiful geisha, and Sayuri, the innocent poor girl sold by her family, both have outfits that help to depict their personalities. We first see her as an enemy, a harsh, vicious lady who is thirsty for fame and envious of Sayuri. The spectator is shown her confined life as a geisha as the movie progresses, where she is unable to be with the guy she loves. Her clothes are generally black in colour to represent her hatred and avarice. Her sensuality, danger, and beauty are all emphasised by her red kimono. Sayuri’s outfits are generally light colours, with a few greyish hues thrown in for good measure. Her light-coloured kimonos represent her innocence and purity.

Sayuri wears a white silk kimono with long flowing 42-inch sleeves, with crimson peeking from underneath, in the iconic dance scene reflecting her struggle throughout life . She also wears extremely high-heeled shoes that make her drag her feet over the stage. White has a lot of meaning in East Asian culture. White is commonly associated with purity, innocence, wholeness, and completion. However, unlike black in western society, it is also a mourning colour in East Asian culture. With Colleen Atwood’s work, the effort and time that goes into planning and making the costumes visible.

Although costume designers play an important part in bringing characters to life, they are not as well-known as actors or directors.

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Athira Gopal k

NIFT Communication student | Eagerly writing about Fashion ,design ,communication that interests me and could help you too one day.