From Period to Fantasy to Contemporary: A Reflection on the Role of Costumes in Film & TV

Cassie traps her next man in a sequined number | Promising Young Woman (2020)

March is Women’s History Month! And in the spirit of the season, FF2 Media has teamed up with the female-led podcast OFFSCREEN with Jillian and Sophia to celebrate women filmmakers through open discussion. In last week’s episode, Creating A Body in Space: The Craft Behind Film, Nicole Ackman and I had the pleasure of talking with Jillian and Sophia about the significance of costume design in film and television.

When we think of film, we usually think about the actors, directors, and writers rather than the costume designers, makeup artists, and others who work on the film’s craft. The costume designer is essential to communicating character or illustrating growth while furthering the story’s plot and fleshing out the world that the filmmakers have dreamt up. And as this month is all about celebrating women, we talked about female costume designers dominating the scene with their impressive work. 

We discussed both contemporary and period costume design. Having written rather extensively on the costumes of Emerald Fennell’s dark comedy thriller Promising Young Woman (2020), I touched on the juxtaposition of Cassie’s style and her party looks, that they are chosen and styled with intention. In order to attract the lecherous man masquerading as a “nice guy,” Cassie must present as vulnerable, which she achieves by presenting as drunk. To read more about costume’s role in this film, you can check out our feature or our interviews with costume designer Nancy Steiner and makeup artist Angela Wells

From there, we moved into the realm of period costume. Along with genres like fantasy, period depends on impeccably constructed and thought-out garments. Costumes here carry a great deal of weight – they not only tell the story and reflect the personalities of its characters, but they also work to immerse the audience in the world that the filmmaker has created. From Alexandra Byrne’s Emma (2020) to Jacqueline Durran’s Little Women (2020), period films spearheaded by female costume designers have been enjoying deserved recognition this award season. Nicole and I pondered accuracy in period costume design, asking: When is costume accuracy crucial to the plot and its characters, and when do alterations better serve them? Nicole discusses this subject in greater depth in her own reflection as well as in her previous FF2  publications.

A closer look at Judy’s green skirt ensemble in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

There’s no surprise as to why a period film’s costuming might face more scrutiny than a contemporary one. Though you’re telling a new story, you’re placing it in a time already passed. In recreating an older world rather than inventing a new one, you must adhere to its already-established rules. In the last 15 years or so, superheroes have resurged in popularity on the silver screen. Their costuming faces a similar challenge – how can the designer preserve the integrity of those original iconic costumes that fans love while adapting them to a modern audience?

Take Marvel’s latest release, the Disney+ series WandaVision (2021), in which “Wanda Maximoff” (Elizabeth Olsen), after several franchise film appearances, finally dons her iconic comic book “Scarlet Witch” costume, complete with the red headpiece and bodice, but with some changes (like armor instead of spandex.) Having instantly fallen in love with Wanda and her transformation, I want to explore further female superhero costume adaptations – how they’ve changed and what they mean – in a future piece.

Something that makes WandaVision great is its exploration of the American sitcom’s evolution through the decades, clothing included. In just one series, we see the most iconic looks from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. While these points in time might be too recent to be considered “period,” similar rules apply. With each decade come specific shades of colors and commonly used fabrics and silhouettes. The 1950s, for example, is known for a particularly saturated olive, pickle green – think Judy’s full skirt in Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo.

Diana wears a shade of purple that costume designer Amy Roberts describes as particularly ’80s | The Crown, Season 4 (2020)

Since WandaVision’s period pieces are rooted in fiction rather than history, there is some leeway with how its characters choose to dress depending on the decade. Take reality-based shows like The Crown, however, and there is an added layer of stringency. Its characters wear costumes that were once real outfits worn by the show’s real counterparts. Had we more time to chat with Jillian and Sophia on OFFSCREEN, I would’ve explored this wonderful show – which not only maintains the integrity of color, texture, and silhouette, but matches costumes that these people wore in real life. 

In the past few months, I’ve done quite a bit of research into the myriad ways in which clothing adds to the artistry. I’ve studied decade-specific clothing like The Crown and noted how it tells each character’s story. I’ve seen contemporary costume’s ability to further plot in Promising Young Woman while witnessing, in real-time, clothing’s ability to communicate a message via the presidential inauguration stage. Furthermore, I’ve explored costume through the lens of applied art, taking a detour into the world of fine jewelry. Watch FF2Media for my upcoming feature on the New York costume industry as a whole and what the pandemic has meant for those businesses which depend on Broadway, film, and television to keep their warehouses running. 

Having spent so much time with this medium, I was happy to get the opportunity to engage in discussion on the subject!

© Roza M. Melkumyan (3/19/21) FF2 Media

Cassie sits in a sky blue dress | Promising Young Woman (2020)

Featured Photo: Wanda wears a 1970s-esque dress | WandaVision (2021)

Tags: Angela Wells, carousel-5-21, costume design, costumes, FF2 Media, Jillian and Sophia, Marvel, Nancy Steiner, Offscreen, podcast, Promising Young Woman, Roza Melkumyan, The Crown, WandaVision

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. After graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. In 2019, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. She has continued to live in Armenia, and loves every second of it. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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