Fashion in film books are a rare thing. Not only that, but costume designers’ work is often underrated. “Costume is character”, says Martin Scorsese. Film costume isn’t about the dress. Great film costume grounds characters, advances the narrative, speaks more than words do, gives voice to and rounds the director’s vision. It was Hitchcock’s movies that sparked my interest in fashion on screen when I was a teenager. The clothes in his films were not eye catchers, but were the best at shaping identities. They did not seek for fashion headlines, but they have influenced fashion ever since.
That said, who better to delve into this fascinating subject with than Caroline Young, writer of Classic Hollywood Style? A book of reference in the field, one of those rare ones I was mentioning above, covering Hollywood’s Golden Age and singing the art of the greatest costume designers, from Adrian, Travis Banton, Jean Louis and Edith Head, to Theadora Van Runkle. But what I loved the most about it was that it doesn’t take fashion out of the context, which makes it accessible and engaging for everyone interested in movies, those times and the fashions of the times. I do have one regret however: it includes only thirty-four films – I often reach for it when I am writing a style in film article in the hope I may find a reliable source of information, something just as rare on the theme, unfortunately. But more about the book, about Ruth Morley’s overlooked work in Annie Hall, the author’s interesting new book on fashion subcultures coming out next year and her favourite thing to do in Edinburgh, in my interview with the writer below. A great conversation. Caroline’s true passion for cinema shines through and that only reinforces mine.
How did you come to writing a book about fashion in film?
Well, I was doing a film course about 12 years ago and one of the topics was on costume, where we watched Imitation of Life and discussed how costume shapes identity and narrative. Then I found a book in the library called Gowns by Adrian, by Howard Gutner, and saw these stunning images from Hollywood movies in the 1930s. It wasn’t just the theatrical designs for period films, but the elegant outfits worn by shop girls in New York department stores that I loved. After exploring a bit further I found there weren’t many books on the subject, but I was fascinated with the Hollywood lore around costumes, I decided to start researching.
It wasn’t that easy to watch many of the older films as Youtube didn’t exist in 2004 and most of these movies hadn’t been transferred onto DVD. I did source a VHS copy of Queen Christina on the German Amazon, but when I started watching it, I realised it had been dubbed over in German, with no subtitles. The film looked great, but following the plot was a bit tricky as I didn’t understand a word.
What was the most challenging part about writing Classic Hollywood Style?
Choosing the images turned out to be a lengthy process, and even now I think there are other photos I wish I could have included, even though I’m really proud of the way it looks! I struggled to find good quality colour shots of Imitation of Life, which was really frustrating as colour is so important in that film.
As part of my research I flew over to Los Angeles to visit the archives at the Margaret Herrick Library and Warner Brothers archive at USC. I spent days just searching through files trying to find information on costume design through specific productions. I ended up with aches and pains from being hunched over boxes and files, but it was so exciting to find a real gem, such as memos and letters between the producers of Casablanca, debating whether Humphrey Bogart should wear a hat in the film, and notes from the censor’s office on their disapproval of the revealing nature of some of Marilyn Monroe’s costumes.
How hard was to select the movies you included in the book? Why those particular films? Is there anything you would do differently now? Are there other movies you would add?
Again really difficult choices, as there are so many that are unique or particularly represent an era or genre. How do you choose between an Adrian-designed Garbo film when there’s something stylistically special about all of them. The Painted Veil for example – hats that are really quite avant-garde, or Mata Hari, where she wears this shimmering mesh body suit and jeweled skull caps. But I chose Queen Christina, because the designs from the film sparked a number of fashion trends at the time it was originally released.
I wanted a mix of really well-known, iconic films, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bonnie and Clyde, but with some lesser known films with influential costume, like Kitty Foyle and A Woman of Affairs. I chose the 1930s version of Cleopatra rather than the Elizabeth Taylor movie because it’s such a fantastic example of art deco design.
Some of the films that I wish I could have included would be The Postman Always Rings Twice, Vertigo, Rear Window, Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, The Women…so many!
What is your earliest memory of being impacted by the craft of a costume designer?
I think I was about 12 years old when I got into film in a big way, reading Empire magazine, trying to sneak in to see films in the cinema even though I was under age, and my favourite films were definitely shaped by how the characters looked. Ripley in Aliens was my heroine, and it’s partly down to her simple boiler suit and white t-shirt– it was unlike other sci-fi costumes for women, it was practical, she got the job done, and she was wasn’t seen to be weak just because she was female. Similarly with Thelma and Louise, I remember the impact it had on me, that I was aware this was something so non-sexist, pro-woman, and what they wore was cool, practical, ripped up and swapped around for a life on the road. On the opposite side of that, I also loved Pretty Woman, and part of that was the shopping fantasy of the film. I interviewed the designer, Marilyn Vance, a couple of years ago and heard all the stories behind the costumes – every item was created from scratch, and she searched out the perfect pieces of fabric for those now iconic costumes.
Your book covers the classic cinema period. Is there any post-1990 (I am leaving the 70s and 80s out) film with a great impact of far reaching influence in terms of fashion?
There’s so many from the nineties and 2000s – Clueless, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, The Matrix – you continue to see these referenced in music videos and fashion spreads. I remember Moulin Rouge inspired a load of lacey, boudoir style clothing at the time. When The Artist came out in 2011, and then The Great Gatsby a few years later, there was a huge 1920s influence in fashion and on the high street. Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, Milena Canonero’s costumes in Marie Antoinette, and Ryan Gosling’s jacket from Drive all made a degree of cult status. But TV series are almost making more of an impact now in terms of style. Think Mad Men, Breaking Bad, even Downton Abbey.
Television series are definitely having a moment. They have for several years in fact. And not only in terms of fashion. Why this shift of good screenwriters, directors and actors towards television?
Television has become much more respected as a medium, and as we see more quality productions, and successful careers from TV shows, people realised that it was something to be part of. Especially when they can be produced by netflix and Amazon, so there’s not so much that threat of cancellation that many American shows would suffer. There’s also the whole boxset thing, where people now binge on multiple series, and really become immersed in the show. I can imagine its appealing to screenwriters as you can tell a story over ten episodes rather than in two years, allowing characters and plots to be more fully developed.
Do you have any favourite costume designers?
Theadora Van Runkle, who designed for Bonnie and Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair. I came across a selection of her costume sketches, and they are beautiful works of art in their own right – she actually began her career as an illustrator – and they are so detailed, I think someone described them as being like Leon Bakst illustrations. In terms of more recent films, I love Sandy Powell – the beatnik style costumes and tartan dresses on Rooney Mara were fantastic.
You are of course talking about Sandy Powell and Rooney Mara in Carol. I am yet to see the movie, but I’ve been looking forward to the costumes ever since I saw the first images released. I was reading what Powell said about director Todd Haynes having created a lookbook of images, consisting of photographs and paintings to inspire the film. It somehow reminds me of Hitchcock and his film-making style. What was the impression the movie left you? How about Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe?
I loved the costumes in Carol, if you’ve seen Far from Heaven, Sandy Powell worked with Todd Haynes to create these wonderful, vivid Douglas Sirk inspired 1950s costumes. They went for more realism in Carol, and I liked how the film really made me feel like I was in 1950s America. They were wearable clothes for Rooney Mara’s character – she was like a cool pixie who becomes more grown up towards the end – while Cate Blanchett’s character dressed in the way of a woman with money, with this bulky fur coat. The thing I noticed about Cate Blanchett was how she wears the perfect make-up, with the bright lips and nails, at the start – almost like a protection against what’s happening in her life. But this fades as she makes decisions to free herself, and perhaps becomes more comfortable with who she is.
Yes, I can see a similarity to some of the Edith Head suits in Hitchcock movies. Colour was also really important to Hitchcock, he saw it as helping shape a mood or particular moment in film. Kim Novak’s Vertigo suit was to be the colour of San Francisco fog, Grace Kelly’s dress in Dial M for Murder is red as she cheats on her husband, for example.
Do costume designers have an image problem? Fashion designers seem to have begun to permeate their territory and affect their work. Do you think fashion designers, whose movie work often tends to be stylised, know that they don’t dress movie stars, but actors, and characters?
I do think costume designers are under appreciated. When a fashion designer is hired to create special pieces for a particular character they tend to get the headlines and articles as maybe they are better at promoting themselves, and also if they have a more recognizable name, then there’ll be more interest for journalists. But they’ve not been slaving away dressing the supporting actors, the extras, making sure each item is cleaned and ready for shooting, and that there are duplicate costumes for every eventuality. It’s not a new thing though – Ruth Morley for Annie Hall was unsung, instead everyone thought Ralph Lauren designed every one of Diane Keaton’s outfits.
Couture is quite different from costume, so it’s about creating a piece of art, something that makes visual impact, rather than helping shape a character. There’s the saying that the best costumes are the ones you don’t even notice.
Film costume has changed over the years. Costume designers today less and less create the clothes from scratch and instead shop for them off the racks, or use archive or vintage pieces. Is it good, is it bad? Furthermore, nowadays the colour, the texture and even the fit are sometimes digitally altered. Does costume, and character, benefit from that at all? Isn’t there something important lost in the process?
In a way it’s more true to life to buy off the rack, as that’s how most people shop in real life and film audiences are increasingly more sophisticated – they expect a degree of realism on screen. Movie studios don’t have the huge wardrobe departments and workrooms they did under the studio system, but it was also much more common for people to make their own clothes back then than it is now. But for period films and for superhero movies there is incredible workmanship that goes into creating costumes, it’s just a different way of achieving a result. And just because a t-shirt has been bought from the rack, or from a vintage store, it will still be altered and amended to fit with the character and scenario.
How important is it to expose the younger generations to the movies of the past? How can we do that?
Younger generations tend to think of old movies as being boring and without edge. Often they are in black and white, and it’s a different style of acting to what people are used to now. But while there was censorship in films up to the 1960s, they also dealt with the same issues as we experience now, but they had to convey it in a more subtle way, and not just with crashing waves or trains going through tunnels. I think Netflix definitely needs to make available more of the old classics, cinemas should screen older movies too. Although it’s funny that When Harry Met Sally is considered an old movie!
What is the biggest challenge fashion journalism faces in the context of the new media?
Finding a platform and to be able to make money from it. Jobs in fashion journalism are limited, and the competition is high, so it’s a difficult one to break into.
Can you tell me a little about your new book that comes out next year?
It’s about fashion subcultures over the last 100 years from around the world, not just goths and mods and punks, but kogals in Japan, sapeurs of the Congo, the zoot-suiters of the 1940s. It’s similar in a way to Classic Hollywood Style in that it’s about what people wear, and why. I’ve tried to delve into the reasons behind street style and why groups almost create a mini-society where they choose to dress a certain way.
What does style mean to you?
Style to me is about wearing something that makes you feel comfortable with yourself. But I really admire people who carve out and create their own identities, who express themselves through what they wear and how they wear it. When I was in my late teens and early twenties there was a much more dressed down, androgynous style – trainers, baggy trousers, vest tops – there was a shop in Glasgow called Dr Jive which I thought was the most amazing place even though I couldn’t afford any of the pieces there. But I luckily managed to miss that fake, overly dressed aesthetic.
Name five of your all-time favourite movies.
It’s difficult to choose a definitive list, but I’ll go for Gilda, True Romance, Rear Window, Aliens and Bonnie and Clyde.
The last book you’ve read.
The Last Party by John Harris, which documents the Britpop era. I was a teenager then so it made me feel very nostalgic.
One thing you can’t start your day without.
A large coffee while I have a read of what’s been happening in the world.
Which is your one favourite thing to do in Edinburgh and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
The Filmhouse and the Cameo! They have brilliant selections of old movies, arthouse and mainstream.
I always miss Edinburgh when I’m away from home, it’s a special place – Gothic and dark in winter, but with lovely outdoor space, great scenic views and a volcano right in the city centre. It’s also small enough to walk around, and inevitably you run into people you know.
What’s the last movie you saw at the cinema? And what film are you looking forward to seeing next?
Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary based on private audio by Marlon Brando – it was a really philosophical film, how childhood trauma manifests itself, and his own struggles on what merit acting really has. Coming up, I’ve got to say I’m quite excited about seeing Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in another film together.
photos: Michael Curtiz directing Humohrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, costumes by Orry-Kelly (Everett Collection/Rex Features) / 2-Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, costumes by Theadora van Runkle (Everett Collection/Rex Features) / 3-contact sheet from Bonnie and Clyde (Everet Collection/Rex Features) / 4-Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, costumes by Vicky Williams (Everett Collection) / 5-Marlon Brando on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire, costumes by Lucinda Ballard (Rex Features) / 6-Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, costumes by Milo Anderson (WarnerBrothers Pictures) / 7-Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs, costumes by Adrian (Rex Features) / 8-Grace Kelly on the set of To Catch A Thief, costumes by Edith Head (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences) / 9, 10-Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol, costumes by Sandy Powell (StudioCanal) / 11-James Dean and Natalie Wood on the set of Rebel Without A Cause, costumes by Moss Mabry (Warner Brothers Pictures) / 12-Bette Davies in All About Eve, costumes by Edith Head and Charles Le Maire (20th Century Fox)