The One-Stop Shop for Costume Designers

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We all wake up each morning and dress ourselves, most of us don’t think much of it. But next time you’re standing in front of your wardrobe, imagine having to dress a minimum of 300 extras, as costume designer Janty Yates and military costume design expert David Crossman did on the set of Napoleon. Imagine crafting outfits from a wardrobe of Victorian undergarments, each up to Yorgos Lanthimos’ standards of heavy symbolism that develops with its wearer and plot, as did Holly Waddington for Poor Things. Imagine having to capture a Barbies internal dialogue and her relationship with the worlds around her as she transforms from a doll to a human being, as Jacqueline Durran did for the Barbie movie.

When we get dressed, we choose how to represent ourselves in a world that is deeply familiar to us. Costume design is an entirely different ballgame, where hundreds of outfits are crafted through meticulous research for a myriad of characters, each with their own roles and arcs in a story. Period films are particularly remarkable in this respect, where costumes make time travel possible. Between all the factors there are to consider, from the level of historical accuracy, the individuality of the characters, to the relatability to the modern audience, no two films are ever the same – even those depicting the same events in history. With the level of grandiosity and detail in today’s films, it’s hard to imagine where all the clothes, the hats, the jewelry, the shoes, and all other works come from.

Costume warehouse companies are an age-old solution for productions of all sizes, boasting the most extensive collections of clothing and accessories from any time and place imaginable. Companies such as EuroCostumes in Paris and Peris Costumes in Madrid own multiple warehouses in their respective cities and have been expanding their stocks since the first days of filmmaking. Pascale Bourtequoi, who founded EuroCostumes in Paris described costuming as a lifetime commitment to hunting for treasures, a baton passed through generations in her family. Myriam Wais, Director of Communication at Peris Costumes describes their stock of over 10 million pieces spanning satellites in 12 cities in Europe, which covers “everything from antiquity to contemporary fashion”.

Holly Waddington told IndieWire.com that the costumes for Poor Things, which won the BAFTA Award and the Oscar for Best Costume Design, were heavily based on Victorian undergarments, body padding and corsetry that are usually emitted or minimised in films to make the historical dress more accessible to a contemporary audience. This demonstrates that while warehouses serve as a source of inspiration, replicated from antique or museum costumes, but that each production will use them differently. It would start to get obvious if each Victorian film used the same ballgowns, or every Western cowboy had the same hat and belt buckle, but tailoring and dressmaking services can customise or produce new pieces for hire. As Wais describes, Peris Costumes offers their network of professional experts to advise costume designers on how to materialise their wildest ideas. Bourtequoi described how financing and supporting the creation of new costumes allows the Euro-Costumes collection to grow, as the new designs are absorbed into the collection when the filmmaking concludes.

Wais at Peris Costumes describes how “in the last 100 years, the human body has changed. The average height has grown by about 12cm and nutrition has increased the average weight.” This means that original garments, historical artefacts which must be cared for meticulously, would need many alterations to fit actors. As costume director for Oppenheimer Ellen Mirojnick told IndieWire, mending, weaving, and repairing can do more harm than good to garments that are decades old. Furthermore, costume tailoring is a crucial technique that adds to their storytelling value, such as the way Oppenheimer’s suits grew larger and more ill-fitting as his body weathered down. The challenges of fit and tailoring in replications are not an obstacle but a source of inspiration that send costume warehouses “into constant evolution”, as said by Peris Costumes.

The replication process goes a step further in films involving combat and heavy stunt work, where a large portion of the budget goes to creating damageable garments so costumes can deteriorate as the plot unfolds. Janty Yates and David Crossman replicated over 4000 uniforms for Napoleon, dressing up to 900 soldiers a day for some of the war scenes. They recall a shortage of stock for the number of costumes necessary to create Napoleon’s epic battle scenes, which is why they took patterns from original French revolution coats into mass production with the services of Peris Costumes. For each, the tailoring, textiles, and details were taken into consideration to contribute to the fully immersive experience of the film that audiences may not even be conscious of.

The Madrid based Peris Group, the corporation owning Peris Costumes have started a new company, Peris Digital in response to how the film industry is increasingly using computer imagine. They have adapted Sony powered photogrammetry technology to create digital clothing based on scans of Peris Costumes’ extensive collection. CTO of Peris Digital described to BritishCinematographer.com that the digital costumes are applied to extras and doubles in a matter of hours to add unmatched dynamic realism to background characters. This accelerates post-production faster than traditional methods such as CGI and 3D adaptations of costume. Cruella, Dune, 1899 as well as TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders and Bridgerton have all made use of the technological innovation.

While characters in the background can get by on stereotyped replications, costumes of main characters require a high level of individuality and personal features. While it takes a strong network and extensive knowledge of the market, many costume designers source the materials for these details independently. Online markets such as eBay and Catawiki have made this a more viable option, granting access to whatever words are able to describe. The online markets are brimming with accessories, which are strong vintage era signifiers that can stand the test of time. Hats were a powerful symbol in Oppenheimer because the real Oppenheimer wore a signature shape. Ellen Mirojnick described to TheArtofCostume.com that Christopher Nolan wanted no one else to wear a hat, for it to be a narrative tool that transforms the film from a biopic to a portrait.

Flea markets and specialty vintage shops can be another treasure trove for unexpected finds that build to the personal style of characters. Accessing a network of experts for the respective historical period of film can contribute to nuances and key details, from authentic artisans of minority cultures around the world, to scholars and archivists who dedicate their lives to the study of a specific period and region. Killers of the Flower Moon costume designer Jacqueline West reflected that her work, in its respect to the Osage Nation, would not have been possible without the consultancy of Julie O’Keefe, who was originally meant to be on board for only 10 days.

Biopic period pieces recreate the personal style and sentiments of real people, often with cult-followings, where realism in the details can make or break the film’s success. The costume departments must imagine what would have been worn on the day to day, without outfits looking like period Halloween costumes. For example, the 120 looks commissioned for Priscilla by Stacey Battat had to show the passage of time, not only taking us through the decades but through the stages of her life from an army Brat who borrowed clothes from her mom to a self-assured and independent woman. Aside from that, they must recreate instantly recognisable designs that were worn by key figures to events in the past viewed by millions. While Priscilla’s iconic wedding gown was bought in a department store, the one in the film designed by Chanel’s creative director Virginie Viard took creative liberties to incorporate elements of modern Chanel that highlight Priscilla’s dreamy narrative perspective.

All in all, costumes are a vital element in the visual language of a film and contribute to its reputation and cultural impact for years after its release. It’s no easy task to translate the inner lives of characters, documenting their personality, history, relationships, and development through clothing. Costume designers would not be able to dream up the looks of each character without costume warehouses around the world. Since the dawn of filmmaking, these warehouses have been a one-stop shop for the inspiration, rental, replicating and creating new garments for films.

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