Exploring Ginger Rogers’ Costumes in Top Hat (1935)

In anticipation of discussing interwar fashion and film as part of the MA course this semester, I marathoned the movie partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over winter break. Their highest grossing film, Top Hat (1935), remains well known today both for the pair’s fancy footwork and the spectacular outfits worn by Ginger Rogers. Her costumes were designed by Bernard Newman, former head designer at Bergdorf Goodman who had initially been contracted by RKO to make costumes for Roberta, another Astaire-Rogers film. Newman would go on to dress Rogers in Swing Time (1936) and Follow the Fleet (1936). His imaginative designs for Top Hat assured Rogers’ place as the ultimate fashionista of 1930s musical film.

Dale’s nightgown and robe in stills from Top Hat (1935)

In the film, Ginger Rogers’ character Dale Tremont is a model for the fictional designer Alberto Beddini, and she wears ‘his’ high-fashion clothing throughout the film. Dale encounters Astaire’s Jerry Travers days before a trip to Italy to meet her friend Madge Hardwick, awoken by his tap-dancing in the hotel room above. Her nightgown, cut in the fashionable slim silhouette of the 1930s, is designed with short sleeves and a v-neckline accentuated with a bow at the bust. When she confronts Jerry, Dale covers up her previously exposed skin with a silk robe: her low neckline is replaced with a high, flared collar and her arms covered with long bell sleeves.

Dale’s riding outfit in stills from Top Hat (1935)

Despite her icy response to his dancing, Jerry attempts to woo Dale the next day at the stables. Her riding outfit is practical and fashionable, with activity-appropriate jodhpurs, a checked blazer, and an ascot accentuated with a glittering pin. Jerry entices Dale to tap dance with him and she soon returns his affections.

Dale’s afternoon dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

A mix-up with Jerry’s employer Horace Hardwick leads Dale to believe she accidentally fell for Madge’s husband. During the ensuing trip to Italy, Dale tries to explain the situation to a comically indifferent Madge. In an attempt to catch Jerry (who Dale believes is Horace) in the act of lying, she confronts him wearing a tantalizing low-back afternoon resort dress, its sheer sleeves and spray of flowers at the collar accentuating her femininity. She tells Jerry of a fictional time they spent together in Paris only to become angry with him when he starts to play along with a story he knows is false.

The iconic ostrich feather dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

That evening Madge invites Horace, Dale, and Jerry to dinner. Horace is, of course, unable to attend. Madge encourages Dale and Jerry to dance (having intended to introduce them during the Italy trip), and Dale reluctantly agrees. The following dance sequence, “Cheek to Cheek,” is perhaps their most well-known. Though the scene looks effortlessly beautiful, Rogers’ ostrich feather dress was a source of contention on the set. As it shed feathers during each take, director Mark Sandrich and Astaire demanded Rogers change. She, along with her manager, rejected their criticisms and the now iconic dress remained in the film.

The Piccolino Dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

After yet more mix ups, Dale finally uncovers Jerry’s real identity. They end the film joyously dancing “The Piccolino,” with Rogers’ glittering dress echoing the celebratory mood. The Piccolino dress epitomizes how, despite being in black and white, Newman’s costumes in Top Hat are a feast for the eyes and rightly remembered as some of the best in Astaire-Rogers history.

Making a Scene at the Fashion and Textile Museum: Thoughts on the exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs

Mannequins welcome visitors to the film-inspired exhibition space. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The not so inconspicuously pink and yellow/orange painted Fashion and Textile Museum on London’s Bermondsey Street is just about to wrap up its current exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age- Fashion and Photographs. So, on a cold, rainy Saturday two of us Documenting Fashion MA students (that’s you Jamie!) set out to catch it before it was too late – as did many other Londoners, it seems. It was great to see the exhibition so busy, interest in fashion history bubbling about the place.

A collection of Gordon Conway illustrations begins the exhibition. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Film room from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Presented over two floors, the show, which was curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Dennis Nothdruft and guest curated by Cleo and Mark Butterfield and Terence Pepper, covers a variety of aspects of 1920’s fashion, including fashion for different occasions, its representation in cinema, magazines and photography and as illustration. Furthermore, accessories are included on the second floor including make-up, stockings, and jewellery. In addition, an entire room dedicated to the photography of James Abbe, who photographed show-girls and film stars, also formed part of the exhibit. Every bit of space in the museum has been utilised for 1920’s material, films and wall decals, providing a range of objects to be discovered and lusted over.

Window display of accessories in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Magazines featured in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The predominant layout chosen for the presentation of fashion in the main exhibition hall are “scenes” reminiscent of movie sets. These consist of a collection of mannequins in different poses situated on set-like areas corresponding to a theme. In “In the Boudoir” for example, mannequins wear corresponding clothing and the set’s back wall depicts an elaborate bed with curtains, as well as candlesticks and ornate pillars. To reinforce this notion of a quasi-movie set, artefacts such as stage lighting, a typewriter and a director’s chair are placed in between the first two “scenes.” As an idea, the scenes work well as an exhibition display, not only grouping clothing with a particular purpose together, but also, letting the viewer imagine how a room full of women might have looked in the 1920’s. Seen from the angle of our MA, the chosen layout raised some questions: How do the colours, patterns and designs compare and contrast and how would the women have perceived each other? What sense of identity did they take on depending on the cut, style and purpose of their clothing? How was fashion presented and disseminated through the media, show-girls and celebrities? How much did this influence the wearer in their own perception of fashion and lifestyles? The exhibition supports such questions, justifying the inclusion of photographs and illustrators in the show as highlighting “…the role of photographs and magazines in promoting the 1920s look”.

‘In the Boudoir’ scene from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Props in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

1920’s Jazz Age was, to be frank, really great fun and seemingly lovingly created. It is an excellent show for an introductory glance at the changing fashions, photographs, illustrations and magazines of the period. It could be faulted for trying to incorporate too many items and mediums at once or for being too busy with various films, magazine cases, wall decals and hangings. However, this is precisely what makes it accessible. The viewer can dip in and out of any area as they please. They can take as much or as little information from it as they like. Essentially, the show reflects how the 1920’s themselves are often perceived; it is busy, hectic, full and enjoyable to the brim due to its light and playful presentation.

Further Reading

https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-photographs

http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/the-fashion-and-textile-museum-jazz-age-fashion-photographs-exhibition-3779

http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-and-photographs

A Look Back on ‘Fashioning Winter’ at Somerset House

It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’
by Alexis Romano

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

4 November, 2014

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House
by Fruszi Befeki

An empty vitrine...

An empty vitrine…

Objects and condition reports

Objects and condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text...

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

7 November 2014

A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’
by Fruszi Befeki

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

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Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.

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Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.

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These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.

Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.

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Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.

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Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.

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If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.

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While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.

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The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.

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Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.

18 November, 2014

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Fashion, Violence and Obsession in Leave Her to Heaven

Hello,

Here’s another PDF for you to download!

Film poster for Leave Her To Heaven

This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill – a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.

Cornel Wilde as Richard and Gene Tierney as Ellen

The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals.  We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!

Gene Tierney as Ellen

With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film.  If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 1

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 2

Sombreros and Sarapes, Good and Evil in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.28.14

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, depictions of indigenous people and their dress began to be used by artists as an important tool for glorifying Mexican nationalism and the new Socialist politics of the country. Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker who became disheartened with the Soviet Union’s treatment of both avant-garde art and antique religious artefacts, looked to Mexico as an example of perfect socialism. He traveled there in 1930, after meeting Diego Rivera in 1927 and became enthralled with the Mexican heritage that Rivera spoke so passionately about.  Eisenstein’s intention was shoot a film entitled ¡Que Viva Mexico! However, the project was never fully realized as he was forced to return to the USSR after losing his funding in 1932. What remains are the hundreds of metres of film he shot, which, in 1979 were turned into a film of the same name by director Grigori Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov remained faithful to the format that Eisenstein had intended for the film, breaking the footage up into four separate episodes: Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey and Soldadera, as well as a prologue and epilogue.

The film opens with shots of the Mexican landscape and ancient ruins, depicted almost as snapshots. Each of the four episodes then depicts a different time period and location, but always exalting Mexican nationalism, culture and particularly the lower classes.

Maguey is the episode in which sympathy for and appreciation of the lower classes is most apparent, and the disparity between the dress of the workers and landowners most obvious. Set on a maguey plantation during the pre-Revolutionary capitalist regime, headed by leader Porfirio Diaz, it tells the story of Sebastian, a worker, and his lover Maria. When Maria is held captive and abused by the apparently evil landowner, Sebastian and his friends seek revenge, but are caught and executed. The episode is laced with visual references to Christianity, the immorality of the capitalist landowners and a clear allegiance to the workers.

workers in the courtyard

Dress is crucial in marking out the different characters, particularly for an English viewer, as the film is in Spanish with Russian subtitles. As well as making the plot slightly more difficult to follow, this has the effect of forcing the viewer to read the visual clues left by Eisenstein during his filming. The workers are depicted in traditional Mexican clothing: simple trousers, and woven sarapes, blanket-like capes. During the beginning of the episode, the viewer is introduced to the workers. They are shown lined up against a wall in a sun-drenched courtyard. The camera draws the viewer’s attention to their garments and sandal-like shoes. These shots of the sun-drenched wall and the sarape-clad men were clearly conceived as an image of quintessential indigenous Mexico. However it is not an idealised, peaceful lifestyle. These men are subject to the exploitation and poor treatment that Eisenstein feels is part of a capitalist society. In stark contrast to the workers, there is one solitary figure looming in the background that is a representation of authority on the plantation. Unlike the men, he wears more European style tight-fitting trousers, a jacket and a large hat. He is seen only in profile, a silhouette against the bright field behind, which makes the large gun he rests on his bent knee even more apparent and menacing. His European style dress is one of the most obvious symbols of his evil character.

the wealthy landowner in European attire

The workers’ dress is also radically different from the landowners themselves, who are shown as fat, lazy men getting drunk while the workers toil on the plantations. This episode is constructed as a microcosm of capitalism, in which the rich get ever richer, and subsequently fatter, from the labour of the poor. These men, who are cast as evil in the eyes of the viewer, are distinguishable by their lavish, European style of dress. They are depicted in tailored jackets, striped trousers and one even wears a bowtie, tying them definitively to Western capitalist societies.

Women’s dress is also contrasted to display the differences in social class. Maria is shown wearing a simple skirt, blouse and a scarf covering her head. In direct comparison, Sara, the daughter of the landowner, arrives wearing extravagant clothing; an elaborate ruffled blouse and skirt, white lace gloves, a large hat with lace train and bustle. She is an exaggerated image of vanity and her ostentatious costume is used to exhibit her decadence and cruelty.

the landowner's daughter, Sara

Eisenstein’s message is clear: Mexico under Spanish rule and Diaz’s westernised, capitalist regime was a cruel society, driven by greed and abuse of the indigenous people. What is perhaps most significant about the depictions of the different classes in Eisenstein’s film is that they are mediated through a nationalist lens – the wealthier, landowning classes, who are portrayed as evil and manipulative, are all closely aligned through their dress to European traditions. The lower, working classes, in their indigenous attire, are idealised and shown as the victims of a corrupt capitalist system, and therefore are the heroes of the film.

Sources:

Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz, Mexico According to Eisenstein, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Seven: Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Camille Benda has recently designed costumes for the following films: Lilting, Still, The Quiet Ones, and The Blood Stripe, which is currently in post-production. As well as film, Camille has designed numerous theater productions, including regional theater at Yale Repertory Theater and Off-Broadway at Rattlestick Theatre. She also speaks about costume history at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Costume Society and The Courtauld Institute of Art.

What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion, and what attracted you to The Courtauld in particular?

The moment I heard about the Courtauld, I knew I had to go. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and was designing costumes for small theatre productions at the time. I was captivated by the chance to live in London, with its world-class museums, and the opportunity to combine history of dress studies with my fledgling costume design career.

Clothing was an early obsession for me, and it blossomed into a fascination with costumes, historical dress and fashion. I’ve always been interested in people and what makes humanity tick; so dress became a framework for understanding people – as we learnt at the Courtauld, clothing and fashion communicate economic and social status, moral values, human behavior and much more.

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

You graduated in 1999. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? What was the subject of your dissertation? 

Aileen Ribeiro was in her last few years of teaching at the Courtauld, and I feel so lucky to have been taught by her before she retired. It was the one-year course in the History of Dress, so we covered dress history through the ages in the first half. Our specialization was 18th century English and Scottish dress, with a trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh. My dissertation was on Moravian and Slovakian folk embroidery and the meanings woven within. Folk dress is a particular favourite of mine: it creates a tangible connection between the past and present, and is a perfect example of form and function working in harmony.

How did your time at The Courtauld impact your career choice?

Research has always been my favourite part of the design process – that’s where the characters described in a script come alive in images. I am always surprised when I am searching for the look of a character, and a drawing, painting or photo pops into my head as the perfect solution. It’s usually an image I’ve seen in the very first days of doing research – my brain must set it aside somewhere on a shelf, to be brought out for the right moment. Always go back to your research when you are stuck!

After The Courtauld you went on to complete an MFA in Theatre Design at Yale University. Could you describe this transition and/or how the two courses of study worked together? 

I was accepted to the Courtauld and Yale at the same time! So I asked Yale to defer my enrolment for a year so I could do the Courtauld course. I felt the Courtauld would provide me a unique viewpoint from which to look at costume design. The two courses meshed so well together. The Courtauld really provided me with the foundation of my approach to costume design, and at Yale I learnt the craft.

Could you discuss your career since completing your studies? 

I have focused on costume design for film since graduating, first in London as an assistant costume designer on films shot in England, like The Golden Compass, then designing costumes for art house films like Pelican Blood and Weekender. In between projects, I enjoyed giving the occasional history of dress talk, at the V&A, the Costume Society and my favourite one, a talk at the annual CHODA symposium about the representation of Elizabeth I in film throughout the 20th century, and the effect contemporary fashion design had on how the designs were approached. Now I’m based in Los Angeles, and enjoying learning the ropes in the ultimate movie town.

You’ve moved around for your education and career, notably between the USA and UK. How has your residence in various locations affected your approach to dress (personally and/or professionally)? 

I live in Los Angeles now, and moved there from London, where I lived for 12 years, so climate is the biggest factor in my approach to dress now. I admired London women and their masterful layering techniques: it is a true fashion achievement to stay warm and rainproof while remaining stylish! The exact opposite is Los Angeles style – too hot for layers, but still a big effort to add style to any simple and light look. Perhaps just a linen dress, but with amazing shoes or jewelry. And of course the ubiquitous LA sunglasses, which are an ethnography essay in themselves.

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

You’ve worked on fascinating film and theatre projects, are there any that stand out for you? 

The Master and Margarita, which I designed at Yale for director Will Frears- talk about a perfect creative opportunity! The play was adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s book about 1920’s Russia (with flashbacks to ancient Rome) and the absurdity of oppression. I enjoyed designing costumes for constructivist Russian artists, six-foot tall cats, Roman emperors, a naked witch and a masked ball hosted by the devil. (See photo)

Does your creative approach differ for historic films, such as Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, as opposed to ones set in the present time? 

Not at all! Once I discovered costume design, I was blissfully able to convey my curiosity for people-watching into a curiosity for characters in a script, and then a passion for helping actors, directors and writers express those characters with their costumes. So I always start with that. Costume design is not just putting people in clothes. It’s finding the driving force behind the characters and the script, and then bringing that to the screen, whether that means shopping for modern clothes, building period costumes from scratch (see photo) or digging through a costume rental house for the perfect glove. I always try to shop where the character would shop.

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

I just watched one of your most recent film projects, Lilting, and was mesmerised by its beauty and visual cohesiveness, from the interiors to the lighting and costumes. It shows how the creation of a film depends on a huge network. Could you discuss a particular collaboration that you felt worked well? 

Lilting was a very special project to work on, since everyone did it for the love of the craft, not the money. The budget for the film was tiny, but it proves that money is not the driving force, it should always be a focus on creating the world and telling the story. I often work with the director Karl Golden – he is a master at connecting all the creative departments and staying true to his visual style. I try to work very closely with the production designer, the cinematographer and the hair and makeup department to ensure that I am helping to support a cohesive vision for the film.

Advice for hopeful costume designers, as well as any shifts in the field of costume design that you’ve witnessed? 

Collaborate and contribute. Talent is necessary, but the next level is to be able to collaborate and support your team, other departments and the director. You can help your director and producers by showing them how much costume design can contribute to a project, be it film, television, theatre, music video, dance. It’s magical when you can infect other people with your own enthusiasm for design. But I’m not biased or anything….

The industry is changing. I learned from amazing costume designers like Ruth Meyers and Jane Greenwood who have been working for 50 years in the industry. Everyone knew how to draw by hand, and many designers still do, however now eye-catching computer drawing is becoming very popular. There are many more stylists joining the industry, starting out dressing celebrities and doing music videos and then moving into film and television. It will be interesting to see where costume design goes next!

De Djess: A Cinderella Story for MiuMiu

De Djess

The Ninth Women’s Tale for MiuMiu’s Spring Summer 2015 collection is told from the perspective of a newborn dress, or ‘djess,’ according to the film’s fictitious gamelot. In Alice Rohrwacher’s film, the dress, animated by stop-motion, is no mere piece of stuff, but a fully sentient being. According to animator Michaelangel Fornaro, being a feminine object, the dress had to possess the delicate, deft mannerisms of a woman. Certainly, thanks to an internal rig, its white satin body ripples with emotion, and the fringe of polyp-like beads that fringe its deep neckline, function as sensitive antennae.

The dress, which is different from its gaudier sisters in the collection, with their graphic prints, suggestive cuts and jazzy embellishments, resonates with fairytale or indeed couture show endings. Those familiar with either form, might comprehend that the white, ethereal garment is a wedding dress, and that it is saving itself for someone special.

The dress’s original intended is Divina, an Anita Ekberg-like actress with a halo of platinum blonde hair and a hibiscus-red mouth, who courts the paparazzi in a tight, scarlet pencil skirt. However, when the dress is presented to her in her hotel suite, where she reigns supreme in a white bullet bra and sheer tights, she is indifferent to it. She continues to talk on the telephone, despite entreaties from her agent, and caresses from the garment itself. After a tantrum, she reluctantly agrees to wear it, but the moment she touches it, the scorned dress mysteriously pricks her finger, and a drop of blood stains its white surface. It squeals in protest, and sobs ricochet through its satin body, as it sheds a trail of beads, and goes into hiding under the bed.

The dress and Divina’s mutual rejection of one another, somewhat evokes that of Cinderella’s stepsisters and the fateful slipper in Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale. Despite their best efforts, which include cutting off their toes,  in the Grimm Brothers’ later adaptation, the stepsisters cannot deceive the shoe, and by extension, the Prince, that it belongs to them. Rohrwacher’s cinematic tale draws upon the older fairytale’s premise that bespoke garments and their associated destinies, are the property of particular owners. However, her film is less morally clear than the Cinderella fairytale, because though Divina is blind to the dress’s extraordinary nature, she is wise enough to recognise that it is not for her.

De Djess 2

In another modification of the Cinderella story, the dress’s true intended, at first seems an unlikely candidate. A ingenuous, bare-faced, black maid, played by Yanet Majica, appears on scene, when she scrambles out from beneath the dust cloud of paparazzi. The viewer instantly recognises her as the highly-strung dress’s rightful wearer, because she is sensitive to every bead it sheds. However, she is initially  intercepted by a nun, who indicates that she must take it to Divina. Like Cinderella and the slipper, the maid and the dress find each other once more, and when she discards her maid’s uniform, it automatically glides up her stem-like body. If Perrault had scripted this tale, we might have expected the spot of blood to clear away in its contact with the maid’s virtuous flesh. However, Rohrwacher is once again more interesting, as the spot becomes the beginning of a cherry pattern that embroiders the dress.  Rohrwacher described this as the dress’s blossoming, because ‘it hadn’t already blossomed,’ and was therefore unfinished, prior to wear. Equally, the shy, serious maid, is incomplete without the dress, because she only smiles after she has put it on. As they step out to greet the zealous paparazzi, both dress and maid laugh audibly when they recognise that the latter have run out of battery. Thus, the dress lives happily ever after with the one who truly loves it, rather than merely wanting to capture its beauty. Rohrwacher thus subtly implies that aesthetic fulfilment is reached through the wear of bespoke garments, and not through the accumulation of images.

Sources

‘De Djess’ Directed by Alice Rohrwacher, for MiuMiu, Spring/Summer 2015. Posted on February 17, 2015

’De Djess’ Interview with Michaelangelo Fornaro. Published February 18, 2015.