Costume designers dress movies for success

June 16, 1993|By Kansas City Star

For his Shakespearean romance "Much Ado About Nothing," director Kenneth Branagh wanted costumes that couldn't be pinned down to a specific historic era.

The designers for the "Star Wars" series had to create entire planets and imagine fashions for characters who weren't even human.

The costumer of the new Tina Turner film biography, "What's Love Got to Do With It," had to re-create clothing styles from the 1950s through the '80s.

The costumes for "Bram Stoker's Dracula" combined historically accurate Victorian dress with outlandish creations: Young Dracula's suit of armor looked like a body with its skin peeled off; the burial gown for a vampire victim that looked like an explosion of white lace.

And occasionally members of the public so like something they've seen on the silver screen that they start wearing it themselves:

* Marlon Brando's motorcycle jacket and boots in "The Wild One" in 1954 helped set for decades the standard of what a well-dressed biker should wear.

* After Woody Allen's film became a multiple Oscar-winner in 1978, the "Annie Hall" look took off. Women copied the fashions worn by star Diane Keaton -- old vests, shapeless skirts and floppy hats were layered on in a junk-store look that's still common.

* Sales of well-worn hats and bomber jackets took off after the release of each "Indiana Jones" film as men tried to ape Harrison Ford's self-deprecating macho.

* When young Jennifer Beals made her screen debut in "Flashdance" in 1983, her character's funky fashion sense -- especially the off-the shoulder-sweater or sweat shirt -- was almost immediately copied by hundreds of thousands of young women.

But Hollywood costume designers usually aren't thinking of setting a fashion trend when they go to work on a film. They are trying to come up with clothing that meets the particular needs of a director and the actors who are wearing it.

Among the questions always asked before production begins:

* Is the director looking for an absolutely realistic evocation of a particular time and place?

* Are the costumes meant to emphasize a certain aspect of the story, such as romance, glamour, poverty or conformity?

* Do the costumes make the stars look good? Frequently this consideration outweighs all others in designing for a movie.

For films set in a particular time and place, designers may be asked to provide authentic re-creations of historic clothing. This often entails tremendous research. For example, the costumers for "The Last of the Mohicans" became experts in the tattoos and breechcloth designs of various Northeastern Indian tribes in the mid-1700s.

Sometimes total accuracy isn't desirable. Consider "Wide Sargasso Sea," an erotic drama set in Jamaica in the 1840s and 1850s. Designer Norma Moriceau sought out clothing that was historically accurate but opted for costuming the black plantation workers in bright colors.

This reinforced director John Duigan's concept of Jamaica as an exotic place overflowing with passions. The English characters for the most part are costumed in drab earth tones reflecting their "civilized" inhibitions.

"Obviously people in those days didn't wear those kinds of colors," the film's producer, Jan Sharp, said. "But we felt the story had a sort of archetypal quality, and we decided to create a heightened, very voluptuous reality with incredibly rich, satiny colors."

In bringing Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" to the screen, director and star Kenneth Branagh wanted the film's costumes to emphasize the universality of its love story by minimizing references to any particular time period.

"I wanted this film to reflect how relevant and contemporary Shakespeare is today," Mr. Branagh said in a telephone interview, "and as much as possible I wanted the costumes to be rather vague.

Most of the male characters in "Much Ado" are soldiers; they were given short tunics that resemble Napoleonic uniforms and tight trousers with knee-high boots. For casual wear, costume designer Phyllis Dalton provided shirts with bloused sleeves and short silk "riverboat gambler" vests with floppy lapels.

Incidental characters wore "peasant" garb -- baggy pants tucked into boots, long vests and loose white shirts -- of the sort worn by Italian laborers for hundreds of years.

The women's look was even more non-specific: long summery cotton dresses in natural colors with cinched waists, bare shoulders and scooped necklines to emphasize the outdoorsy, sensual atmosphere Mr. Branagh wanted to evoke.

"The work of these designers is often underappreciated," "Sargasso" 's Sharp said. "That's because you usually don't want costumes to draw attention to themselves. Rather, you want them to create a convincing background, a believable world in which the story takes place."

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