Vintage Vantage: The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition

Today’s post was written by Museum Coordinator Leigh Wishner, a key player in organizing our annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. Leigh shares her tour highlights from a selection of films featured in this year’s exhibition – read on for a fascinating, virtual mini-tour of three period productions!

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Do you love going to the movies, or streaming them from the comfort of your couch? Then chances are one of the elements that makes your viewing experience exciting are the costumes worn on screen. At the FIDM Museum, we’ve been displaying this facet of filmmaking for over two decades: our annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition just concluded its 28th year. One of my favorite aspects of working on this project only comes after every last mannequin is dressed, positioned, drilled-down in place, and camera-ready. That’s when we start giving tours, and when the real fun begins!

This year’s exhibition ended a week earlier than scheduled; because we didn’t get to lead the last remaining tours we had booked, and in the spirit of the times, I’d like to give our devoted museum audience a few of my tour highlights, just as I would have shared in person–but with a specific twist. Since I’m such a fan of vintage style, I’m going to share with you costumes from three period films. I hope you’ll see how imaginative costume designers can be even when they’re bound to historic people and events for inspiration. 

Interestingly, all of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Costume Design were period films (Jojo Rabbit, by Mayes C. Rubeo; The Irishman, by Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson; Joker, by Mark Bridges; Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, by Arianne Phillips; and, the winner, Little Women, by Jacqueline Durran). That isn’t so surprising, as period films tend to get the most attention when it comes to the fashions portrayed–the further removed our contemporary audience is from the era depicted, the more appreciation the costumes receive, primarily because they tend to be unlike what we wear now. It’s only natural that we “romanticize” the not-so-distant past, too, admiring the diversity of on-screen fashions whether they’re from the 1940s, 1960s, or the 1970s. Here, in chronological order, are my period picks. 

Jojo Rabbit

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Jojo Rabbit, costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo

Mayes C. Rubeo received her first Academy Award nomination for her work on Jojo Rabbit, and may have had the most challenging job of all: how does one take a dark, highly-sensitive time and place (Nazi Germany) and show the hypocrisy of hateful ideology, all while expressing it from a child’s vantage point? She succeeded, to my general astonishment. Dressing the lead characters to convey their status in wartime society became an exercise in color and detail, grounded in historical research. Rubeo’s close collaboration with director Taika Waititi (with whom she worked previously on Thor: Ragnarok) was invaluable. Together, decisions were made as to the “core” and visual touchstones for each character.

066_JR_[04381-04381]_g_r709.0Roman Griffin Davis as JoJo; photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

For Jojo’s costumes, Rubeo mixed historic research on “Jungvolk” youth uniforms with a key cinematic sensibility: the 1948 Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves, characterized by a similar grittiness that conveyed a child’s innocence in troubled times. In my mind, pint-sized militaristic dress always points out the insidious nature of indoctrination; on the adult end of the spectrum, Rubeo captures this in Captain Klenzendorf’s (Sam Rockwell) “finale” costume. He wears his basic youth group leader uniform, but added all the fringe, tassels, studs, feathers, and trim it could support! Rubeo intended this to look purposefully scattered and absurd, as if designed by someone who had no idea how to follow the rules of design or decorum, and not-so-subtly mocks the uniformity of fascist doctrine.  

Rosie_HomeLate (1)Scarlett Johansen as Rosie; costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo, costume illustration by David Masson

Costuming Jojo’s bohemian-leaning mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansen), gave Rubeo the most flexibility in shaping the character’s personality. Rubeo researched the era’s looks, creating mood boards with everything from jaunty hats, wide-legged slacks, and chic embroidered frocks. She chose saturated colors, like teal-green wool for a classic late 1930s style coat, and striking geometric patterns to convey the stylish influence of Parisian artists–she cited the works of Sonia Delaunay as influential for the zig-zag patterning seen on this chic mint-green sweater, and noted rebellious couturière Elsa Schiaparelli as a fashion leader Rosie would have followed. If you detect an emphasis on the color green, that’s also no accident. Jojo and Rosie inhabit a world tinged green with optimism–their home is predominantly shaded with wallpapers and paint in these tones, and her clothing especially blends in.

Jojo soniaMayes Rubeo’s Sonia Delaunay mood board for the character of Rosie

Ultimately, though, the most important costume detail for Rosie is her two-tone spectator shoes, which hold bittersweet memories: at first, they symbolize her spirit and strength, but eventually they represent tragedy. Amazing how much can be conveyed by a humble pair of russet-and-white shoes! These were made by Jitterbug Boy, shoemakers in Toronto that supply the film and television industry with custom footwear. The majority of Rubeo’s costumes were also custom, but she mixed in a few vintage pieces from Italian and German costume rental houses. Rental houses provide economical ways to bolster a costume designer’s budget–why reinvent the wheel if a source has just the right piece, ready to complete your vision?

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

L013120A-0090AOnce Upon A Time…in Hollywoodcostume design by Arianne Phillips

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Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton on location at Musso & Frank’s; photo courtesy of Sony

Because it truly is a “love letter” to Los Angeles, the city where I was born and raised, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood occupies a soft spot in my heart. Not only did director Quentin Tarantino film extensively on location (drinks at Musso & Frank’s, anyone?), he sought authenticity through costume choices for his lead and peripheral actors. OUATIH is the first time Tarantino worked with costume designer Arianne Phillips, and it seemed to be a match made in heaven. Phillips shared the secret to working with Tarantino, a director with incredibly specific ideas: if any detail of dress is mentioned in the script, he expects to see it on screen. Part of Philllips’ work was historically based; she created costumes for real-life personalities, like the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and fictional characters, like semi-washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). All of this was guided by old photographs of people in Los Angeles, and the “tribes” they identified with–hippies, Hollywood industry-types, Mods, etc. 

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Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate; costume design by Arianne Phillips, costume illustration by Phillip Boute

Archival photos, movies, film footage, and periodicals were especially useful when it came to inspiring Phillips’s choices for Sharon Tate. A photo of Tate wearing a full-length python coat to the 1968 premiere of Rosemary’s Baby (directed by her husband, Roman Polanski) inspired the covetable faux snakeskin trench coat that Phillips chose for our display. Though it may look like Phillips raided vintage clothing stores, she actually “built” most of the costumes for her lead actors to get just the right details and color palette for the film. Using vintage clothes is best suited to films in which the characters wearing these unique pieces won’t be involved in action or physical scenes–like spilling food or drink, or getting into bloody fights (no spoiler alert here–it is a Tarantino film, after all!)

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Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth; photo courtesy of Sony

I was most impressed with the Aloha shirt worn by Brad Pitt. Tarantino specified a Hawaiian shirt for Cliff–it’s the ultimate garment for conveying a laid-back persona. Phillips looked at countless vintage shirts before deciding to create her own version with an Asian-inspired motif in a brilliant shade of yellow. Coulda fooled me–she nailed the cut, proportions, fabric, and even the coconut shell buttons found on original garments! I also appreciated that this shirt is not a 60s style–it’s modeled on shirts from the 1940s, which syncs with this character’s youth-culture, thrift-store sensibilities. If you’re noticing the harmonious, yellow-tinged hues in these costumes, no need to adjust your eyes: Phillips settled on a “sunwashed” palette for the vintage L.A. vibe. It matches Tarantino’s overall vision perfectly.  

Rocketman

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Rocketman, costume design by Julian Day

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Full disclosure: these were, by far, my favorite film costumes for 2019! And it’s not just because I have a predilection for razzle-dazzle. It’s because Julian Day did the impossible: he took a real (and still living) rock ‘n’ roll legend, Elton John, and managed to hew closely to the artist’s theatrical spirit without slavishly recreating original costumes. You may remember Day’s Academy Award-nominated costumes for the 2018 music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. For that project, Day followed a more literal approach to recreating documented looks worn by Freddie Mercury. The point of Rocketman, however, was not to be a literal biopic, but instead a musical fantasy. Elton John was an enthusiastic participant in Day’s planning, allowing him unprecedented access to his London archive, which is brimming with stage-worn pieces dating back to the 1970s. The film follows a troubled Elton (Taron Eggerton) as he becomes increasingly unhinged, spiraling towards–and triumphing over–self-destruction. This exaggeration is palpable in person… 

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Taron Eggerton as Elton John; photo courtesy of Paramount

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No matter which direction you travel around this group of costumes, you’re greeted with an explosion of color, light, texture, and–above all–meaning. The “Devil” look is the first costume Day designed for the film, setting the tone. Elton wears this to rehab, and the contrast of his orange spandex jumpsuit and horned headdress (covered with 60,000 hand-applied Swarovski crystals in mesmerizing flames) with his bleak surroundings is extremely poignant. The heart-shaped wings and heart-shaped, rose-colored glasses impart a sense of longing for love and acceptance that drive this iconic character through the film’s arc. 

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The multi-colored “cockerel” costume bristles with a dyed-pheasant plume mohawk and countless sequin “feathers”–this one is incredible in motion, which unfortunately can’t be recreated on static mannequins, but proves the point of how essential it is to see costumes in action.

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Taron Eggerton as Elton John; costume design by Julian Day, costume illustration by Darrell Warner

The Queen Elizabeth I costume that Elton wears onstage also looks entirely different in motion. In reality he did don a Marie Antoinette-inspired costume on tour in Australia, but Day preferred a connection with British monarchy, pairing Elton’s Elizabethan finery with rugged Doc Martin boots. Special shout-out to classic Hollywood style: the starry ruff ornamentation is a nod to a similar piece worn by Hedy Lamarr in Ziegfeld Girl (1941, designed by my personal hero, Gilbert Adrian). 

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Our final two Rocketman looks share a plethora of crystals, but each says something very different. Day cites the Dodgers uniform–worn by Elton without the least bit of irony for his 1975 Dodger Stadium concerts in Los Angeles–as the one design he preferred to recreate as closely to the original as possible. Why? Because it’s hard to improve on Bob Mackie’s design! He sought permission from the over-the-top stagewear and fashion designer to recreate Elton’s costume, and his only departure was to amp-up the shine factor, upgrading the uniform from sequins to Swarovski crystals–140,000 of them, but who’s counting!?

50  GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD Taron Eggerton as Elton John; costume design by Julian Day, costume illustration by Darrell Warner

L013120A-0374AFinally, and most thoughtfully, I leave you with the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” costume to ponder. It’s amazing that a musical and cinematic sentiment so powerful can be encapsulated in one outfit, but that was Day’s accomplishment. As Elton’s song references the 1939 blockbuster The Wizard of Oz, so, too, does Day’s ensemble, from head to toe: the Scarecrow is represented by the straw cowboy hat; the Tin Man, a shiny silver shirt; the Cowardly Lion, a brawny faux-fur coat (made by the House of Fluff); and Dorothy, whose gingham pinafore and ruby slippers are distilled into a blue shantung suit with glittering red lapels and boots. The final detail that might be overlooked is a silver belt buckle with a giant green gem–an Emerald City beacon of hope. Since the costumes for The Wizard of Oz were also designed by Adrian, I’m beginning to sense that Day and I both worship at the feet of this design legend.

Though Day used a few pre-existing vintage and rental costume elements, his vision for Elton’s costumes was so unique that almost all were built from scratch–you’d be hard pressed to find all the elements needed to assemble these costumes.  It’s a mystery why he wasn’t recognized by the Academy for his work on Rocketman…let’s hope we get to see more from him in our galleries next year!  

One response to “Vintage Vantage: The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition

  1. Marco says:

    Those red sparkling boots are terrific!

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