Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dressing the Past

More than any other style, history or period drama films are the most often winning costume design of the academy awards. The effort in research, vintage sources and design is an extensive labor of love.

As we study film, a foundational essay is Siegfried Kracauer's “Theory of Film.” He wrote the text and 1960 and it is still regarded as significant for identifying that film had two prime tendancies:
1 - To document reality
2 - As a formal art
These two directions of film are still evident today and we are obsessed with reality and docu-dramas and also emphasize special effect films like Avatar. Muybridge was an early example of both documenting and play with the formal aspects. An early motion photo sequence became famous because it was the first record to prove a horses feet did not touch the ground in one instance of running.

Muybridg'e sequence photos not only influenced and understanding of film but inspires motion graphic aesthetics even to today as in this Muybridge inspired rendering.

Kracauer also importantly identifies the role of film genres.He suggested that genres please audiences because they know what to expect from certain types of films and the pleasures connect to cultural values.

When looking specifically at the fashion of period films, we find a strong emphasis on the 18th century. Historic films go back as far as the beginning of time and Spartacus, 1960 is an example of an important Academy Award winning Roman era film. However the emphasis falls on the 18th century because this is when fashion hit a decadent prime. The fashion of this time is so elaborate the films are often called “costume films.”

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) was based on an 18th century novel about the excessive lives of the court. James Acheson won best costume design and used original vintage fabrics in some cases but the fabric was so old it could barely endure the filming process. The look of the dresses bears similarity to the court of Marie Antoinette. Below Uma Thurman appeared in the film is a softer pink and beige color palette contrasted by the older characters who wore blues and oranges. All characters appear in pastels, which was characteristic of the era.

Barry Lyndon was based on an 1844 novel about 18th century English society and a poor Irish man who seduces his way to Baron. The main female lead is consistently dressed in white and beige throughout the film, contrasted by her husband in blues.

Barry Lyndon won Best Costume Design in the Academy Awards for 1975. Milena Canonera was said to be so detailed about the costumes she even stored costumes in the dressers of bedroom scenes to add a feel of authenticity.

Above and below show Milena Canonera's interest in costume of the private life, which is much harder to research given lack of historical paintings of bedroom activity. Below, Marie Antoinette was another Oscar winning project. Canonera said she was inspired by decadence and frivolity in a candy colored palette, macaroons, the Marie Antoinette apartments. Director Sophia Coppola also added some contemporary aspects, including some Louboutin and Converse shoes and a modern soundtrack.

Marie Antoinette was distinguished in the court by exquisite and distinctive colors and patterns for her dresses. Toward the end of her reign and after the fall of aristocracy, Rousseau was a popular writer who emphasized a more puritan look for women, including white dresses and straw hats. In one of Marie Antoinette's last portraits we see her wearing this more humble look. A similar straw hat was used in the costume of The Duchess, about English aristocracy at the end of the 18th century.

Cynthia Cooper's article "The Victorian and Edwardian Eras," emphasizes from 1837 (the era of Queen Victoria) to end of British dominance in 1911.

Young Victoria, 2009

The Victorian era saw limited change in men's attire with simply the tails of a coat and length of a coat decreasing, mainly due to the reduction in horseback riding. Importantly the idea of a dandy and the flaneur develops this time out of the British Beau Brummell circle.

19th century costume still inspires contemporary men's fashion, Numero, September 2006 shot by Lagerfeld.

Women used corsets until 1900. Full coverage dresses were most popular in day, including high neck and long sleeves as below. By the late 1800's a back bustle appeared under the dress. Short sleeves and neck exposure was reserved for evening gowns such as those by Worth below.

Ladies Home Journal, 1870’s and Charles Frederick Worth, 1880

The Belle Epoque is the era of French style at the turn of the century in which art nouveau was a backdrop to softer looks and an increased use of black.

Cheri, 2009 in the Belle Epoque, 1890’s-1913

The leg of mutton sleeve was a popular trend of the 1890's.

The dance scene of Pride & Prejudice (2005) shows characteristic 19th century evening wear.

Stella Bruzzi writes about 3 films in “Desire and the Costume Film ." She starts with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). This film takes place in 1900 and shows clothing that follows the above styles of the Edwardian era. The girls are largely show in white school dresses but corsets also play a factor in the girls' coming of age.

The author suggests that dressing and undressing are part of the ritual of coming of age. An important scene in the film is a final sequence in which the girls remove their socks, as exposing ankles at the time was private.

Below one of the teachers wears "leg of mutton" sleeves.

Age of Innocence (1993) takes place in 1870's New York society. A man is caught between an older, wealthier lover and his young wife. The older woman is cast in deeper colors while the wife appears in white in every scene.

Above Michelle Pfeiffer portrayed the lover, Winona Ryder was the wife.

Finally Bruzzi discusses The Piano (1993) which shows 19th century New Zealand, influenced by a more somber Puritan aesthetic.

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