Why we need good costume designers

Last week I saw “Stage Presence”, an exhibition at the Arts Centre. It reminded me of my student days in theatre costume design, and made me wish that I could have done a few units in set design too. No matter. It was a nice and free exhibition, with the detailed miniature stage sets a particular highlight. I must have caught it on the last day as it’s now closed.

It also reminded me about how important it is to create good costume designs for the characters. Good designs make the performer’s job easier, helping them to get into, and communicate character and scene, and alerts the viewer to time period, location, all kinds of good things. Yesterday I saw a couple of films that served as a good reminder too.

First was the latest version of “Far From the Madding Crowd”, the Thomas Hardy love story (one could almost say melodrama) set in Dorset and starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Evedene, a lass with a choice of three very different suitors. Hardy isn’t easy on his female characters and so it was here.

Spots and stripes: complimentary and yet very different.

The costume designer, Janet Patterson did a bang up job, with beautiful late Victorian costumes in muted tones and natural fibres. Lots of cottons and wool tweeds. Many of them would make glorious clothes today, albeit with a little modernisation. It was a treat to see the actors striding through the beautiful scenery, and I almost wished that some scenes could go on longer so I could examine the particular detailing or seam construction.

far-from-the-madding-bathsheba-900Some of Ms Mulligan’s gorgeous rustic costumes, which really showed off the neat waist that was wasted (so to speak) in the Great Gatsby’s flapper styles.

The suitors were clearly delineated by the differences in their dress: no mistaking these men for each other, and who can resist a Redcoat even if we know immediately that he’s a rotter?
The shepherd, the wealthy businessman and the soldier.

I’m not going to poke holes in the film: it’s very good but not perfect, but it was enjoyable and the costumes, sets and music never distracted. The only character who really stands out in her dress is Bathsheba and much is made of her beauty and independence so it’s appropriate. I was disappointed to see that it failed to win any awards, without even a nomination for the glorious costumes. Ah well.

And then I saw a very different film: the much admired, incredibly successful “The Godfather”. It almost feels sacrilegious to say this but the production design is a hot mess.

It opens to a wedding scene with 750 extras and it looks like the brief went out to friends and family as “wear what you like” because the resulting styles in fashion are so mixed, with a heaviness on late ’60s-early ’70s, I immediately assumed it was set in the year it was made, 1972. There are lots of nostalgic fashions, especially puffed sleeves – influenced by the ’30s and ’40s but interpretted through the ’70s eye in the way that actual fashion did: so we see those lovely floppy hats Mia Farrow wore in the (also widely inaccurate) Great Gatsby that were huge in the ’70s, and pinstriped suits aplenty for the men. There are pillbox hats and bouffant hairstyles, and neat fitted shift dresses in floral prints.


Here’s a scene with Sandra Corleone and her girlfriends: I defy you to correctly identify this as 1945.

*spoiler warning, just in case you don’t want to know any plot details*

I found it baffling: a lot of trouble has been gone to in some regards, but a lot of licence (or laziness?) was taken with costumes and interiors. Here’s the wacky suit that Carlo Rizzi is wearing when Sonny beats him up.

Looks like panels of tangerine and cream linen. Great for ’72 but the late ’40s?

Most of the characters are (not surprisingly) male and most of them do okay in plain and pinstripe suits, although the lapels have a nasty habit of changing in size, and lack the consistency of real fashions. They’re also not as loose as they should have been but I’m quibbling: this was a big budget film with a lot of expenses, I guess they had to cut corners somewhere.

My favourites are the scenes in Las Vegas: by now we’re probably in the ’50s and so they decided to really glam it up, or maybe they figured that it was a fabulous fantasy land and so they could just make it up. Check out these outfits:

A little Peter Sellers style never went astray.

peter-sellers-styleMr Sellers in 1967.

Are those Elvis’ sunglasses? Love the foreground bouffant too.

There is a beautiful ’40s dressing gown worn by Connie in the scene she goes at her husband for cheating – sadly it’s hard to see as she’s rather upset.
connieApparently the scene was added to increase the “action” in the film, as the producers were worried that Coppola wasn’t creating a violent enough film. It’s a sad day when domestic violence is added to make a film more appealing to its audience.

Anyway, the film is a good example of what you could get away with back when the audience wasn’t as cultural aware as it is now. All the same, I was surprised because this is a very exhalted film and even received award nominations for its costumes. Perhaps they were just swept up in the general excellence of the film? I should also add that googling found many articles praising the costumes and none that pointed out the inconsistencies. I am thankful that today we get more films like “Far From the Madding Crowd” and less like “The Godfather” when it comes to production, set, art and costume design.


  1. 100% agree, Nicole! I didn’t think I was the only one who thinks the same way about costuming… so please forgive this rather long “rant”

    Last year, I was chosen to be an extra on the Doctor Blake Mysteries – as a member of the Club that it gets filmed in here in Ballarat. Club members – before paid extras in the industry are asked – are encouraged to participate and are paid for services rendered. After I gave them my measurements, I asked them if I was able to wear some of my own vintage/vintage-inspired 1950’s garments as you probably won’t find anything that will fit – I’m between a size 6-8 (XSSW or SSW when we speak of the said era). I was promptly told that they would find something. Well, they called me back for “costume” fittings only be wearing clothes that were vintage (not a problem), but were too big by at least two sizes! Sigh! So, they used pins on me… Another Club member who has been in all three seasons thus far, had to have his trousers hoisted up several times… How embarrassing!!
    I have a friend who works in a vintage shop here in Ballarat – who has done courses in fashion during the 1960s in the UK – told me that the costume department for the show came into her shop, bought things from her and promptly asked for a refund if items weren’t suitable! The nerve!
    Now normally, I am mostly into the Mod 1960s scene on a daily basis – fashion, accessories etc – but I do have an appreciation for the late 1950s also. So, from watching many films and documentaries on/during the period and reading several books, I’d like think I’m an “Armchair” sociologist at times when it comes to details, even if I haven’t a course in costume design or fashion.
    At least Marion Boyce and Catherine Martin have a very educated, keen eye for details and have won many awards in their field…

  2. Mod Goddess, I’m sorry to hear that Dr Blake’s didn’t have any appropriate frocks for your friend – I’ve supplied a number of fashion for the show, including those sizes so perhaps they were short on the day? It can be challenging to dress everyone involved. It’s not usual but I do supply fashions on approval for shows, as if they don’t fit/look right, I’d prefer to find the right person for them. But then I take returns for any reason, unusual in this industry.

  3. The frocks were for me, the trousers were for the other Club Member. I think it’s better to actually design and make things – says me who get things altered and doesn’t make her own clothing – rather than purchase them them, even if you are getting some business out of it. šŸ˜‰

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *