Say it with Costume

Say it with Costume

By Jennifer Bentson


The conversation starts when you walk into a room.  What you wear says more than words.  Movie/TV Directors and Producers know that what you wear says a lot without dialog.  Beyond words, the costume can communicate a spiritual condition or human condition. Costume, combined with dialog and action is the poetry of a movie vision. That’s why Costume and the Costume Designer are an integral part of the movie team. The costume can take the viewer from conscious statements to the unconscious world of common images or the “collective unconscious” as noted psychologist, Carl Jung would postulate.


Costume, sets the stage for a character and the story.  It can communicate without words, a sense of time, a fantasy, another world and takes the viewer on a journey.  Without the Darth Vader’s Black Cape, or Cinderella’s Blue Ball Gown, you would not be transported to that “other” reality so quickly or viscerally.  The art of Costume Design has blossomed as the budget for the films increases. When FIDM Museum Curator, Kevin Jones, was asked what is the difference between Costume and Fashion; he said that costume is your make believe self and fashion is who you are.   It is said that the costume performs as well as the actor in a production.  He went on to mention that even cartoons have Costume Designers.

FIDM Photo

During the 24thAnnual, Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition, from February 9, 2016 through April 30, 2016; visiting the Fashion Institute of Design Merchandising  at  919 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90015, is the closest thing to wearing an Oscar nominated costume.  This year, all 5 nominees for Costume Design are represented with their costumes.  The admission to the museum is free and it is open from 10AM to 5PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Parking under the college is not free.


Entering the museum you are greeted with Movie Posters for the Oscar Nominated films.  This is a great backdrop for a selfie.

Photo 1. FIDM Movie Poster Backdrop


Then you turn a corner and there is the fantasy gown of Cinderella on a mannequin standing next to the dashing Prince as you enter the exhibition.  Sandy Powell, who was nominated for Costume Design for Cinderella was also nominated for the film, Carol.  Since Costume Designers work on  contract per film, they may work with many different studios.  According to the production notes for Cinderella, Sandy Powell stated in the production notes, “Cinderella wins the Prince’s heart through her honesty and goodness so I wanted to portray this through her clothes”. Powell goes on to describe some of the factors to design the Ball Gown, “not only does she need to dance, but she needs to run away from the ball down a massive staircase.”  I learned that Sandy Powell actually tested the Cinderella Ball Gown with many prototypes for dancing and moving.  Yes!  Sign me up to test a ball gown any day.

Photo 2. FIDM Cinderella


Standing behind Cinderella is the wicked stepmother with each stepsister flanked on either side.  Part of the inspiration for the stepmother’s costume comes from 1940’s and 50’s style of dress.

Photo 3. FIDM, Cinderella Wicked Stepmother and Stepsister

The elegance of Lady Tremaine’s,(Cate Blanchett) costume of the rich fabrics, lead the viewer to surmise that she spent most of the new husband’s money on her own clothes.  The stepsisters by contrast wear costumes of a cartoon character quality. The fabric of the stepsisters’ skirt is hand painted with garish flowers to match the bodice.

Photo 4. FIDM, Cinderella Credits


Across from the Cinderella exhibit are the costumes from “The Revenant”.  Jacqueline West, a well known costume designer, went to great lengths to create the costumes for The Revenant.

Photo 5. FIDM, The Revenant, Credits


She interviewed local Indian Tribes, and obtained furs and feathers from the Indians for the costumes.  It is legal for Indians to hunt and process furs. In an interview/article by Jazz Tangcay for, Jacqueline West talks about the director’s vision and about the spirituality of Glass (Leo’s character) and that his journey was not rooted in money like the other trappers.  As the costume designer, she used symbolic items such as the beaver and bear skin as a metaphor for Glass being in harmony with nature.  His costume changed as the movie progressed.  It fell apart as would a trapper’s and was augmented over 20 times from found objects in nature.  Trappers would spend months to years in the wilderness to kill and skin hides for market.  She mentions that everything was hand-stitched and there were people who worked solely on creating a patina of grease and dirt on the actor and clothing.

Photo 6. FIDM, The Revenant


Director Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant uses his feelings to guide the Costume Designer.  “He cares about if the costume conveys the emotion and philosophy of that character that he’s looking for.” says Jacqueline West. So the Designer made up a back story for each character and gave them a talisman animal.  “For Fitzgerald, I made the badger his talisman because the badger knows how to navigate through the world and survive.  He’s got a whole badger on his head with the little whiskers, which also make him look a little sinister.”  And, by the way, according to Merriam- Webster, Revenant means one that returns after death or a long absence.


There are two large rooms full of costumes at this exhibition.  Rounding the corner to the second room you are faced with Michael Kaplan’s Designs for “The Force Awakens”.  I remembered being one of the first to see “Star Wars” in May, 1977.  The characters and their costumes became a tidal wave of Halloween Costumes, and cultural icons for my generation. In an interview with Michael Kaplan by Glynnis MacNicol on Nov. 23, 2015, Michael Kaplan stated “Things needed updating, but not recreating.”  He goes on to talk about his process as a designer, “Whenever I start a movie, I take all my cues from the script.  Those cues might be the climate, the economic background of the character, the type of work or action they’ll be doing.  All those things are built into the costume whether it’s a contemporary film or futuristic film or fantasy film.  It’s a long process of addition and subtraction until the character is discovered and all the interested parties are satisfied- those parties being the director and myself.”

Photo 7, FIDM, Star Wars


Kevin Jones shared an interesting story about the silver storm trooper costume.  It was a concept not presented to Director, JJ Abrams, but he glimpsed the concept sketch and wanted it in the film.

Photo 8, FIDM, Silver Storm Trouper


FIDM’s own graduate, Soyon An, was the Costume Designer for the movie, “Jem and the Holograms”.  This movie directed by Jon M. Chu, deals with a girl band and their change in character and in costume which also reflects an inner change in the lead singer.

Photo 9, FIDM, Jem and the Holograms


In the production notes, Director, Jon M. Chu states, “This story is one of a girl trying to figure out her identity, so Jem is also trying to figure out her identity.  That gave us the freedom to experiment with many different looks as Jerrica becomes Jem.”  Soyon An worked hard to create a unique look for Jem and the Holograms.  She stated in the notes that “When the girls become Jem and the Holograms for the first time, their costumes have a modern-day-rock-and-roll theme.  The concert costumes have the stage-worthy, glitz-and-glam, over-the-top look.” I watched a YouTube clip of the movie and noticed that the costumes and make-up really were very edgie and innovative.


The following represent a list of the Costume Designers represented in this 2016 exhibition:


Sandy Powell, Cinderella

Courtney Hoffman, The Hateful Eight

Jacqueline Duran, MacBeth

Jacqueline West, The Revenant

Kate Hawley, Crimson Peak

Jany Temime, Victor Frankenstein

Janet Patterson, Far from the Madding Crowd

Michael Kaplan, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sandy Powell, Carol

Joanna Johnston, Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation

Arianne Phillips, Kingsman: The Secret Service

Mary Claire Hannan, The Longest Ride

Kelli Jones, Straight Outta Compton

Salvador Perez, Jr., Pitch Perfect 2

Soyon An, Jem and the Holograms

Jenny Eagan, Beasts of No Nation

Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road

Odile Dicks-Mireaux, Brooklyn

Paco Delgado, The Danish Girl

Jane Petrie, Suffragette

Daniel Orlandi, Trumbo

Kasia Walicka-Maimone, Bridge of Spies


The career of a costume designer has also grown with numerous paths to realizing the art of character presentation besides the Costume Designer. These avenues may include costume structures such as Superman’s muscles.  Another area of expertise that a designer can enter is the area of computer enhanced costume.  For instance, the arm of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, was filmed with a green band on her arm which would not show up on the film (green screen).  The production notes discuss the character, Furiosa.  “Furiosa has lost part of her left arm, and wears a mechanical arm crafted from salvage materials by Australian artist Matt Boug.

  1. FIDM, Mad Max, Fury Road


A lighter version was made for Theron and her stunt double, Dayna Chiplin, for increased mobility.”  The field of Costume Design is an expanding area where movies strive to become more intense and draw you into another reality.


Kevin Jones, my tour guide for the Museum said that after a film is completed the costumes are usually stored in an archive such as the Disney Archive or if they are borrowed, go back to their place of origin.


Fashion Institute of Design Merchandising (FIDM) has built a prestigious educational program graduating future designers into the Costume and Fashion Industry.  The school has an archive of 215,000 pieces and offers these garments to the industry for research purposes.  Creativity abounds in the field of costume design and offers artists another avenue for expression.  So the next time you want to let someone know how powerful you are, wear a cape or some muscles under your coat.

  1. FIDM, Straight Outta Compton



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.