Costume=Character?

Last weekend, I spent some time digging through my Big Research Box, looking for info for the RomCon workshop I’ll be taking part in at Denver in a couple weeks (“Stripping the Heroine,” all about what the historical heroine would be wearing!). My Big Research Box is, well, just what it sounds like–a big plastic storage tub with folders holding notes and articles and inspirational images. I try to be organized and divide them up by era and subject, i.e. “Regency–Architecture” or “Elizabethan–Music,” but often I get lazy and stuff things in wherever there’s room. So there was info on Regency fashion in several folders, and hours had gone by before I knew it!

It made me think about the importance of fashion and style to character and story. Even when I don’t describe what characters are wearing in a scene or what they have in their armoire, I can see them in my mind. What people choose to wear says so much about them–whether they know it or not. (One of my favorite style blogs, formerly-known-as-Project Rungay, have been doing an in-depth study of the costumes on Mad Men and how they delineate a character’s progress and state of mind. Great stuff!)

I also thought of this recently when I saw a great exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, “From Sketch to Screen,” featuring a lovely selection of film costumes, from an elaborate court dress worn by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina and a white Givenchy suit worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, to superhero outfits from X-Men and Superman, it covers a wide spectrum. This concept of costume=characters is, of course, totally vital in a visual medium like film. Here are just a few of the costumes that were there (photos weren’t allowed so these are just movie stills; there are a few pics of the exhibit itself at the museum’s site):

This purple gown from Elizabeth: The Golden Age

This little beaded leotard from Moulin Rouge (plus the hat and shoes!)

This dinner gown from Titanic (even more gorgeous in person! They also had the blue velvet suit)

Three costumes from Gone With the Wind, including this one (though they are reproductions; the originals didn’t survive)

The famous green dress from Atonement, one of my favorites! (It wasn’t displayed very well, though, at least not for people who want to see details of design! The straps are too fragile for a mannequin so it was just sort of pooled in a little glass case with only the bodice able to be seen clearly. I wish it had been laid out full-length)


Some sparkly jumpsuits from Mamma Mia!

One of Renee Zellwegger’s sequined dresses from Chicago

Two of the little sailor suits from The Sound of Music (so wee and cute!)

The white furred cloak Vanessa Redgrave wore on her way to Camelot

You can see how clearly these costumes represent the characters wearing them (and not just how annoyingly skinny Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett are!). Elizabeth I, Rose from Titanic, Guinevere, Scarlett, Cecelia from Atonement, are all right there in these garments, wrapped up in lace, beads, and silk. I found it to be a very helpful lesson in my own search for my characters. (And even though I would have loved to see a Regency movie included in the selection, I also liked the variety!)

What are your favorite movie costumes, or memorable clothes read about in a book? (I always think of Villiars in Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart and the scene in the bank–that has to be the sexiest coat ever!). What do you think clothes say about characters?

(And if you’re in Oklahoma City before August, I highly recommend a look at this exhibit!)

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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