Costumes in the Movies

Posted by Toni V.S. | 10:05 AM | 7 comments »

Recently, I was privileged to see the exhibit of movies costumes at the Durham Museum in Omaha:  five centuries of costuming, as interpreted by screen designers at the London costume suppliers at Cosptop, Ltd.

When watching a movie, most of us don’t really care whether the mob cap worn by Madame LaFarge is authentically mid-18th century French or not.  Nor do we know that the little orange ribbon worn on the lapel of the Duchess is her way of stating without saying a word that she supports William of Orange.  The people who make the big budget movies, do know, however, and they insist on authenticity in the clothes the stars in their movies wear.  Whether it’s a farthingale or a crinoline, a turn-down collar, great coat, or a neck fall, it has to be the proper one for the time in which it’s worn…or else!

Costumes set the scene for the story.  Anyone seeing Scarlett O’Hara with her wide-brimmed picture hat, parasol, and full skirts over a crinoline will knows immediately they’re in for a Civil War drama, without anyone ever saying a word.  If the male lead appears in tights and ankle buskins, wearing a shirt hanging to his thighs with a leather jerkin over it, a pointed cap perched on his head…hey! It’s Robin Hood!  Costumes not only tell us the time of the story but also the age, social class, wealth, and occupation of the wearer.

They may be seen only briefly on the screen, and indeed, may not be noticed by the moviegoer at all, especially if the scene is a short one, except perhaps for the color or something we might consider today an oddity, such as an overlarge wig topped by a tricorne hat with plumes.  Seeing these costumes standing still, so to speak, I realized I didn’t remember a single one, though I had seen a good many of the movies they were used in! (And since I used to design costumes for my college drama club, I notice the clothing more than most.) 

As with any other part of the movie cycle, the costume designer starts with the script.  He reads it to get an idea of the setting and the characters, and once aware of that, he researches…libraries, books, costume houses, and museums containing original garments.  Since most modern fabrics are too stiff and neither look nor hang as original cloth does, most costumes are made of “old-fashioned” fabric, such as cotton, linen, wool, and silk.  They rely on embroiderers and beaders to create decorations, laces, and other trimmings for gowns and coats.  Specialists such as wigmakers, shoemakers, and jewelers are consulted in accessories such as preparing necklaces, eardrops, purses, walking canes, and parasols.  A good many costumes are sewn by hand in order to duplicate the authentic look of the originals, which were created before the invention of the sewing machine, which makes stitches evenly distributed, thus making clothing hang differently than it would if a seamstress, using uneven stitches sewed it.  Sewn by hand, embroided by hand, beaded by hand, sometimes using original lace and other trimmings…it’s difficult to imagine the number of people plus the number of hours spent creating the clothing for a single movie.  As much time is taken to make costumes as it took to make the real clothing.  Is it any wonder the credits after the show are so long? 

A costume has to be authentic from the skin of the wearer outward, even to underwear—called underpinnings.  Wearing the proper underthings determines how an actor walks, sits, and performs all the other business in a play, as well as adding the proper characterization.  A woman wearing a corset and a floor-length gown won’t be expected to run across a room with the same ease as one wearing a mini-skirt and sandals.  In fact, she can’t.  Nor can she slouch in a chair, or sit with her legs crossed.  She also has to be careful going up and downstairs so she won’t step on the hem of her dress and fall.  Male actors are a little more fortunate in this respect, since their roles are more prone to action, and generally men’s small clothes allow more freedom of movement, anyway.

Costumes features in the exhibit were from The New World, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Duchess, Gosford Park, The Last King, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Sherlock Holmes, Casanova, and Phantom of the Opera, and several others.  Both male and female garments, as well as children’s wear were shown, all on mannequins duplicating the actual person’s size.  Several things stuck with me:  the women’s dresses were absolutely beautiful; Johnny Depp and Collin Farrell are much taller than I thought, and all the actresses were probably a Size minus Zero!  Envy…both the clothing and the sizes.

The exhibit is presented by Exhibits Development Prop in cooperation with Cosprop, Ltd., London, England.  Since no photographs were allowed inside the exhibit, pictures here are taken from the Museum brochure.  (TOP:  Poster; Heath Ledger's formal frock coat with gold embroidery and spangled lace for Casanova, designed by Jenny Beaven: Restoration pirate costume worn by Captain Jack Sparrow in the first two “Pirates” movies (designed Penny Rose won Best Costume Award at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy , and Horror Films); Keira Knightley’s silk chenille day ensemble from The Duchess (for which Michael O’Connor won Academy and BAFTA awards); 17th century explorer’s outfit for Collin Farrell Captain John Smith in The New World, designed by Jacqueline West; cover of the brochure.)


  1. Judy // April 28, 2012 at 12:31 PM  

    Wonderful, Toni! So interesting...Love how you've taken advantage of so many things in Omaha!

  2. Mary Ricksen // April 28, 2012 at 2:19 PM  

    How utterly cool! I wish I could see them! I always though JD shorter as a guy too! So how tall is he? I like em tall!

  3. Toni V.S. // April 28, 2012 at 3:47 PM  

    He's 5'10, Mary. I was guessing around 5'7 until I saw his mannequin. Of course, to someone my height, that's 'way up there.

  4. Barbara Monajem // April 28, 2012 at 7:36 PM  

    Very cool. When writing Tastes of Love and Evil, I bought a book on costume design, because the heroine of the story made costumes for a living. It was fascinating to find out how much research goes into making costumes. I'm far more aware and appreciative of movie and theatre costumes now.

  5. Mary Marvella // April 28, 2012 at 10:45 PM  

    Excellent job, Toni!

  6. Nightingale // April 30, 2012 at 10:39 AM  

    Toni, what an interesting post. I really enjoyed the pictures. Wish I could have been at the exhibit, too.

  7. Josie // April 30, 2012 at 9:22 PM  

    Very, very interesting. There is so much research involved in getting the costumes just right.