Costume design vs. fashion and the Great Gatsby mania

the great gatsby 2013

The movie before the movie. I have the feeling I’ve already seen The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann’s remake that will only be released in May. There have been so many teaser clips, so much press talk about the costumes, about the Prada sketches and her collaboration with the film’s costume designer, Catherine Martin, about the sets, about Tiffany designing the jewellery for Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Elizabeth Debicki, and the film has already been named the most stylish film ever, for Goodness sake. The movie should have been released in December last year, so is this some kind of poor (or brilliant some might say) marketing device to keep the public’s interest up? Because it has the exact opposite effect on me: my enthusiasm keeps sinking deeper and deeper.

Whenever a fashion designer is involved in costume designing, everyone, especially fashion magazines, seem to forget that they are not viewing a seasonal collection that they can review at their free will, but a costume meant to dress up and mould a character. And in a film, a dress is a lesson in character development. So taking that dress out of the context, before the movie is out, and saying how stunning it is, it’s more advertising for the fashion designer than for the film, and most importantly, to the detriment of the costume designer himself/herself (Vogue UK simply called Catherine Martin “head of wardrobe”). And I’m not buying that.

“Fashion in film” is a very confusing term and that’s why I’ve even changed the name of my Fashion in film series into Style in film. Fashion has always had a complicated relationship with film. Let’s not forget that, in the past, the Hollywood costume designers invented more styles than any major magazine of the likes of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar cared to admit and this is one of the strongest points of the American cinema in my opinion. In the 1920s and 1930s couturiers were known mainly to the rich. But Adrian, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly and other Hollywood designers became as famous as the stars they dressed and launched major fashion trends, foreshadowing the work of many designers, and their styles act as an ongoing source of inspiration for modern designers. You’ve guessed, many times the originator of these trends was not even recognized.

The interest in costume design has severely diminished over the years. The drawing power of the individual star used to be paramount. They often played dual roles: as the movie star they had become and as the character in the movie. A new trend would spring as soon as the movie was released. The actresses and actors (we can’t really call them stars anymore, can we?) today don’t have this power anymore and the studios and producers don’t usually have the money to invest in actual costume design anymore (and even if they do, they channel it towards other things). They haven’t been doing this for many decades, since the ’60s. The clothes can now be designed, purchased, rented, manufactured, shopped for and aged; costume design has lost a lot of its meaning. And sometimes, to increase publicity, they bring a fashion designer on board. I have nothing against it. I’ve talked about and criticised on previous occasions the way various designers who were responsible for the costumes in certain films were intentionally overlooked and not properly credited (Givenchy for Sabrina would be one).

But the truth of the matter is that fashion has always tried to exploit the film world. And what really upsets me is that fashion designers working on films always forget that their designs must serve the character. Instead, their brand style is often recognisable and the clothes are usually too contemporary, a modern interpretation of the period fashions they should perfectly emulate. This is certainly what will happen in The Great Gatsby. Although I know very well Baz Luhrmann has a very personal film-making style, which I admire, and I would never expect the decors and costumes in his films to accurately depict the atmosphere of the period the plot is placed in. Catherine Martin confirmed my thoughts: “Baz and Miuccia have always connected on their shared fascination with finding modern ways of releasing classic and historical references from the shackles of the past.”

But when I read Prada’s words, “I usually try not to literally reference periods in my work, because that’s not the way I think”, I thought that maybe someone should remind her that this is not her regular fashion collection work and that it’s not the way she thinks that’s the most important thing in designing the costumes for a movie, that in case she’ll work with other directors than Luhrmann in the future. Designing for the movies and fashion have different goals and different cultures, even if designers switch sides.

Maybe now, when we don’t have movie stars anymore, this is a way to attract more audience (and Baz Luhrmann’s films may actually help bringing more young people into cinemas). And let’s not forget that Carey Mulligan has been wearing Prada gowns to different events and award ceremonies for a few years. So why am I tossing and turning over this when it’s clear that there’s a collaborative effort to transform cinema style into fashion in film? All I want to say is: this doesn’t serve the interest of real movie lovers. And I’m not talking only about the costumes, but also about all the stills and decor shots they’ve released. I’m one who doesn’t even read a review until after I’ve seen the film and formed my own opinion. Is it too much to ask to see the movie first and do all the talking later? At least then we’ll know what we’re talking about.

Hoping that you’ve been patient enough to read this far, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Have a wonderful weekend!

photo: Bazmark Films, Red Wagon Productions, Village Roadshow Pictures


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