The empty cloth body of a doll is placed on a sewing table. Sawdust pours into the doll's body, giving her form. Then, yarn hair is attached, button-eyes are sewn in and suddenly a little girl in a yellow raincoat we come to know as Coraline falls into the next frame. It is with this same attention-to-detail that a costume designer approaches the challenge of dressing characters for a film.
I've always been in awe of costume and fashion designs. My mother taught me to sew by hand. All it took was a needle and thread, some cloth, and a vision. Simple, yet complicated. Enriching and intoxicating. And the details... always details.
A few years back, I discovered the Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition at FIDM [Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising] in Downtown L.A. Since then, I've gone to the exhibit every year. It offers a rare chance to see some of the best motion picture costume designs up close. When I stand in front of a some of those costumes, I can see the individual stitches, the layers upon layers of fabric, the authenticity and sheer style of the designs. Only then, can I imagine the absolute enormity of a costume designer's task.
Costumes say so much about character, about the world he or she inhabits, about the story that's unfolding before us. Designers like Michael O'Connor (The Duchess), Janet Patterson (Bright Star), and Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria) had to brush up on history and pour over research before even beginning to think about how to dress the actors in their respective period films.
It was fun to see the fashions of Julie & Julia-- from Julie Powell's contemporary chic Manhattan apparel to Julia Child's tailored suits, skirts and aprons. From the exhibit, I learned that part of costume designer Ann Roth's challenge was the real Julia Child's immense height-- a factor I hadn't thought much about in relation to costuming. Roth had to create an illusion of height and thereby help "sell" the figure of Julia Child through costuming. Otherwise, the waistlines would be off or the fabric wouldn't hang correctly. With the use of experimental shoes for Meryl Streep and countless fittings to see what could be cheated, this was achieved.
Designer Colleen Atwood had a different challenge-- creating colorful, sexy costumes for the heavily female cast of Nine, while constantly being aware of how those costumes would respond to the choreography and movement required by the actor in any given moment. Wardrobe malfunctions weren't an option. The costumes had to dazzle, but they also had to fit precisely.
A change to this year's exhibit brought about the most fun for me, personally. Puppets from the stop-motion animation film, Coraline are on exhibit. When I think about animation, I don't often think of wardrobe. With Coraline, costuming went hand-in-hand with the style and intricacies of the stop-motion animation of the film. Coraline, voiced by Dakota Fanning, had to reflect the fashions of what girls her age are actually wearing. Additionally, fabrics had to be tested to see how they read on film. Some colors and textures could be interesting for distant shots, but too much for close-ups. According to the Lead Costume Design Fabricators for the film, a total of 28 different puppets were used and each of them had numerous costume changes. The challenges posed here would be enough to drive me batty!
I was surprised and excited to see a number of stars at the exhibit, too. The real Wild Things are on display from Spike Jonze's film, Where The Wild Things Are. I was dwarfed by being in the mere presence of Carol, K.W., Alexander, and Judith-- towering above me. Up close, they look just like I imagined them to be from seeing the film [ and reading the book.] When I look up and see moisture from a runny nose glistening on Carol's face, it makes me feel sad. And when I look into her friendly, glass eyes, I feel like she's real even though my adult brain tells me she's not.
Designing the Wild Things and pulling it off in live-action form, was perhaps, one of the most difficult, yet imperative tasks of the film. The costumes for the wild things had to be a perfect combination of form and function (so the actors could move around in them.) What they couldn't be were fake-looking, giant man-suit puppets. The Wild Things had to look like creatures with the capacity for real emotion and humor. Then, there was Max's wolf suit--one costume he wears throughout the film. One costume--easy! Wrong. Since so much rides on that one costume, Max had an entire wardrobe of identical suits for different appearances and actions in the film.
Each year, the FIDM exhibit gets bigger and better. And each year, I learn more and more about the specific challenges each film poses to a costumer designer. It's rather amazing to get to be an insider for a brief moment and see the artistry and detail up close. For anyone who thinks that costume design for film is just a matter of shopping or buying fabric, think again. For the rest of you, the Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition at FIDM is open to the public until April 17, 2010. The exhibit is free and open to the public Tuesdays thru Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Fashion Institute of Design And Merchandising [FIDM Los Angeles]
919 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90015
2010 Exhibit -- Costumes On Display from the following films:
The Duchess, The Last Station, Bright Star, Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria, Amelia, Broken Embraces, Inglorious Basterds, Coraline, My One And Only, Pirate Radio, Julie & Julia, An Education, Public Enemies, Where The Wild Things Are, A Single Man, Night At The Museum, Star Trek, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Soloist, Watchmen, G.I. Joe, Aliens In The Attic, Nine.
Copyright © 2010 by Kliedle