The Suggestive Power of Colour in Milena Canonero’s Costume Design

With a career spanning over four decades, four Academy Awards, and collaborations with some of the most acclaimed directors of the century, Milena Canonero is a legendary figure in costume design whose talent contributed to the creation of modern cinematic myths. As stated by former Berlinale Director Dieter Kosslick, her excellence lays not only ‘in the art of subtly accentuating a character’s personality but also in enhancing the texture of a film through very detailed and original designs’. Her particular focus on colour – already visible in the contraposition between black and white in the droogs’ outfit in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) – was brought to the spotlight thanks to the costumes she created for Marie Antoinette (2006).  But it was not until her collaboration with Wes Anderson that colour truly acquired the suggestive and symbolic power that enriched her creations with multiple layers of meaning.

With Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), Canonero won her third Oscar, after Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) and Chariots of Fire (Hudson, 1981). In the colours and textures employed, the fashion at the cinematic Versailles looks like the desserts in which the queen is seen indulging in multiple scenes. In fact, Canonero was inspired by a box of Ladurée macarons received by Coppola as a gift. The colour palette, then, was mainly constituted by pastel hues, with one significant exception: Madame Du Barry (Asia Argento), King Louis XV’s maitresse-en-tître. In fact, the colours of the dresses convey important unspoken messages throughout the film, a technique which Canonero later extensively employs in her collaboration with Wes Anderson. In the case of Madame Du Barry – whose relationship with the king Marie Antoinette historically deplored – the personal contrasts between mistress and queen, as well as their inherently opposite nature, are emphasised by the contrasting shades they wear. While Marie Antionette (Kirsten Dunst) and her retinue flaunt highly elaborate dresses in pastels and neutrals, Du Barry wears rich, luxurious colours like deep blue, burgundy and purple, even in bed, revealing her lascivious personality and conduct. The only moment in which the queen and her friends depart from their classic pastels is during the masquerade ball, in which they wear emerald green and black, allowing themselves to become their alter-egos and disobey the rules of the court. Emblematically, it is at this ball that Marie Antoinette, who is wearing a black dress with a matching sheer blindfold, meets Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan), delving for the first time into the same territory of affairs and lovers as Du Barry.

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Only two years before Marie Antoinette, Wes Anderson asked Canonero to work on the costumes of his new project freely inspired by the life of underwater filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). This was the beginning of a collaboration that still continues today, characterised by a precise work of coordination which ensures consistency throughout the film, especially in terms of colour palette. Colour is, in fact, fundamental for Anderson in establishing a mood that contrasts grim situations with the levity and fairy-tale-like appearance of his characters and mise-en-scène. Canonero has compared it to the musician’s approach to a melody: ‘colours have their own music, and Wes cares a lot that all of them hit the right notes’.

In The Life Aquatic, Canonero’s wardrobe choices echoed Anderson’s references to the French filmmaker. The red watch cap, one of the most memorable and iconic pieces worn by Zissou, was a characteristic feature of Cousteau and his crew, usually paired with a light blue shirt. Canonero recreated all these elements for the Belafonte’s crew, giving predominance to primary colours like red, blue and yellow. Conveying Anderson’s trademark levity, the movie narrates Zissou’s mission to kill a mysterious sea-creature that has eaten his best friend, yet the whimsical element of the red cap, worn with every outfit, formal or casual, prevents Bill Murray’s character from being taken too seriously.

Jacques Cousteau (left) and Bill Murray as Steve Zissou (right, down) in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). (https://www.primermagazine.com/2017/spend/the-life-aquatic-with-steve-zissou-menswear-at-the-movies)

Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). (https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Life-Aquatic-with-Steve-Zissou)

Similarly, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) presents a contrast between the rich colours of India’s Rajasthan region and the grey suits worn by three brothers, protagonists of the movie. Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) embark on a spiritual journey, in an effort to bond and heal after their father’s death and reconnect with their mother (Anjelica Houston). Each one is wearing a different shade of grey, a gloomy colour which reflects their inner turmoil, externally represented by a set of bright orange suitcases which the brothers had inherited from their deceased father. Hand-painted by Anderson’s brother Eric, these suitcases were the result of a collaboration between Canonero, Anderson, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. Their warm tones reflect the colours of the locations in which the movie was shot, a practice embedded in Anderson’s film aesthetics. But their main function is to embody the physical and emotional luggage of which the brothers will free themselves at the end of the movie.

Peter (Adrien Brody), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) with their orange suitcases. (https://classiq.me/travelling-wes-anderson-style-the-darjeeling-limited)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015), the latest collaboration between the costume designer and the American director which earned Canonero her fourth Oscar, saw the fundamental involvement of two world-known Italian fashion houses: Fendi and Prada. Fendi created pieces for Tilda Swinton’s Madame D., an eighty-four year old aristocrat, described by Anderson as ‘an eccentric beauty and an art collector’. For her wardrobe, Canonero was inspired by the paintings of Gustave Klimt and Tamara de Lempicka and included some hand-painted patterns which clearly referenced the artists. Prada created Jopling’s (Willem Defoe) black leather coat, inspired by 1930s military dispatch riders and with a front lapel functioning as a secret weapons arsenal, as described by Anderson in the script. The dark tones worn by Jopling and Dimitri (Adrien Brody) were contrasted by the pink, purple and mauve tones of the Grand Budapest hotel and its staff’s uniforms, as well as by the unforgettable Mendl’s pastries and their boxes.

Milena Canonero’s forty years of work have seen her involved in some of the most iconic and influential movies of the century. The partnerships with both directors and fashion houses she managed to secure throughout her career resulted in a deep trust that guaranteed communication and creative exchange, without the restrictions of a singular vision. In this way, her costumes deepen the audience’s understanding of each character, masterfully using colours to communicate unspoken truths or inner turmoil. The four Oscars and multiple awards won over the years are just emblems of her talent and genius, widely recognised by the film and fashion industries, as well as by audiences.

By Simona Mezzina

 

Sources:

https://www.primermagazine.com/2017/spend/the-life-aquatic-with-steve-zissou-menswear-at-the-movies

https://classiq.me/travelling-wes-anderson-style-the-darjeeling-limited

https://www.nbcnewyork.com/blogs/threadny/Costume-Designer-Milena-Canonero-Talks-Stanley-Kubrick-Getting-Inspired-By-Macaroons-124499284.html

https://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/2017/06b_berlinale_themen_2017/hommage_2017.html

Zoller Seitz, Matt. The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel. London: Abrams, 2015.

 

Filmography:

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1971).

Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1975)

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, United States, 2006)

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, United States, 2007)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, United States, 2015)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, United States, 2004)