At 7.5 pounds, this hefty book is in danger of tipping your coffee table. All but 100 pages or so are composed of 500+ glossy, full-color images of film costume sketches by some 75+ designers, some of whom you will certainly be familiar (Adrian, Helen Rose), some more obscure, and some unidentified (more on this later). The Table of Contents lists known designers alphabetically, from Eleanor Abbey through Susan Zarate, with their complete filmographies in an appendix. Some designers receive a paragraph or a page of background, or perhaps one characteristic quotation, but these are clearly inconsistent in depth and not especially illuminating; the illustrations tell their own stories anyway.
And what stories! The variety of techniques and mediums used to convey mood, character, and setting is staggering. Deborah Nadoolman Landis — an Oscar-nominated costume designer herself (for Raiders of the Lost Arc and and Coming to America) — uses the introduction to outline the function of a costume designer and how the sketch integrates with the greater creative process of bringing characters to life in clothes for producers, actors, directors, and art directors. Unlike fashion sketches, costume illustrations attempt to portray the peculiarities of the actors they’ll be dressing, so there is a far greater variety of body types represented, and often recognizable faces (or profiles, as with Barbara Streisand‘s likeness below!):
As with any art form, a tremendous panoply of techniques exist and are represented in this book. Some artists use minimalist pen and ink or charcoal;
some use luminescent watercolor;
others use opaque and intense gouache for high drama;
stapled fabric samples;
or a wonderfully unusual collage.
I especially appreciated when mise en scene like props and setting, technically outside the scope of the costume designer, was included; I thought this really helped tie in other aspects of the film production that need to integrate with costumes.
Though unusual, some artists portrayed entire scenes with multiple characters that truly read more like a story than a static character:
Landis reminds us that unlike high art, these sketches are working documents — you can see notes in many margins —
and as such, are treated rather roughly as they pass hands, get thumb-tacked and coffee-stained during production, and are often discarded afterwards. Once the costumes have been drafted and filming completed, these works on paper, no longer needed, have often be used as doormats, wall insulation, or to plug ceiling leaks; Debbie Reynolds remembered a missing chair leg in a studio fitting room which had been replaced by a stack of costume sketches!
There is a chapter at the end of the book on the challenging work of finding, collecting, and documenting costume illustrations. Not only have millions been thrown out, many have no signatures. Even if they have signatures these can be misleading or inaccurate, as some perfectly competent costume designers were not as talented sketch artists — Edith Head is one, and Landis outs herself as another. These designers often enlisted the assistance of illustrators who would frequently change their own styles or mimic their employer’s (the latter occurs in art history when artist assistants or apprentices adopted the styles of their masters).
Though Landis spends considerable time writing about the collaborations necessary to bring costumes to life, and emphasizing how these are functional sketches (often drafted and re-drafted in tremendous haste) meant to literally illustrate a character’s posture, grooming, attitude, and place within a film — this reader walked away with the conviction that many of these fragile illustrations can easily stand up as works of great art in their own right.
More by Deborah Nadoolman Landis: