Museum Life: Film costume onscreen, on the street, and in the museum


Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend and participate in New York University’s second annual conference on film costume, “Film Costume / Rendering Realities”, a collaboration between the Costume Studies and Film Studies departmentsThis one-day event brought together film costume scholars, designers, directors, students, and museum, library, and auction professionals to talk about the power of costume and clothing both on and offscreen.  It was a day filled with engaging and thoughtful formal discussions, fascinating presentations, and great informal conversation.  I was also delighted to meet Worn Through readers and hear about their projects, and how this site is a valuable resource for their research.

The day started off with a presentation by film costume and fashion scholar, Stella Bruzzi.  Her groundbreaking study, Undressing Cinema, remains as fresh and relevant today as when it was published in 1997.  Bruzzi presented the provocative thesis that costume has power and meaning beyond the confines of the character and film narrative—a view in contradiction to many a costume designer–who often adamantly state that the costume exists to serve only the character and narrative arc, with the best work being as unobtrusive as possible. Bruzzi pondered what happened when one doesn’t “look through” but “looks at” clothes on film. If you have not yet read Undressing Cinema, please seek it out—it is well worth your time, and required reading for any student of performance costume.

Stella Bruzzi begins her talk at NYU's Film Costume: Rendering Realities

Stella Bruzzi begins her talk at NYU’s Film Costume /Rendering Realities

Using a silent, stunned audience reaction upon the conclusion of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) as a springboard, Bruzzi proposed in Undressing Cinema that a costume could strongly evoke and embody many other literary, psychological, and cultural references external to the film.  In this sense, the costume became dangerously, delightfully autonomous–not just subservient to the narrative or character’s onscreen life.  She also argued that the use of designer fashion (as opposed to costumes conceived and created by a costume designer) was not a distraction from the character or a lazy choice, but could heighten and enrich the meaning of the character’s life and actions.  Her best example is the case of Yves Saint Laurent’s clothes in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), where fellow call girls caress and coo over the high quality fabric and tailoring of the relatively plain dress worn by Catherine Deneuve’s character, Severine, which stands in stark contrast to the more colorful, patterned, and sexy clothing of her peers.

Bruzzi discussed the complexity of costume in current period films such as Far From the Madding Crowd (2015), noting the productive–and not altogether conflicting–conversation between “correct” period styles and non-historical details.  She also shared her new research interest–the intertwining dialogue between sets, props, and costumes, with Vincente Minnelli’s films as a prime inspiration.  We can all look forward to her forthcoming output.

Next up in the morning session was one of the most compelling and dynamic discussions of the day–a conversation between costume designers John Dunn (Casino, Basquiat, Boardwalk Empire) and Maren Reese (Night Catches Us, The Blacklist), director Charlie Ahern (Wild Style, Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer), and hip-hop dance pioneer and NYU Adjunct Professor Fabel Pabon on “Designing Urban Realities”.  NYU Cinema Studies Professor Drake Stutesman moderated the panel, and it was an absorbing, introspective discussion.

From left: Fabel Pabon, Charlie Ahern, John Dunn, Maren Reese, and moderator Drake Stutesman

From left: Fabel Pabon, Charlie Ahern, John Dunn, Maren Reese, and Drake Stutesman

Some of the highlights centered on the responsibility each felt to the complex notion of authenticity–of achieving and embodying something that is real, not affected or contrived–the “getting it right” of costume design or getting dressed, and a respect for the power of clothes in shaping identity.  Ahern and Reese talked about the very real communities in New York City and Philadelphia they were representing in fictional narratives onscreen, and noted how interviews, oral histories, and good working relationships with interviewees or community members are just as important as referencing visual images for design.

Pabon acknowledged the importance of the gesture and meaningful movement, and how this is inseparable from the clothing itself–the clothing must serve not only visual impact but also the movement of the body.  Others on the panel also acknowledged that attitude and significance is embodied in the actor’s movements, body carriage, and sometimes in ritualistic or iconic gestures, which heighten the importance of the garment or accessory to its wearer and owner. Pabon also described rituals surrounding attire before they even touch the body, such as the obligatory smelling of the freshness of a new pair of sneakers in the box, in their new, unworn state!

Another interesting point involved the personal side of designing, and how one’s own feelings and experiences figure into the process.  John Dunn noted that he has “designed” Andy Warhol three times (Basquiat [1996]; Factory Girl [2006]; and Vinyl [2016]), and each time was different not only depending upon the circumstances of the production, but also because of the person he is/was at the time.

Two costumes on display from the upcoming HBO series, Vinyl

Two costumes on display from the upcoming HBO series, Vinyl

Dunn made another interesting point when recounting how initially disturbed he felt in hearing that some fans of Boardwalk Empire watch the show with the sound off, looking solely at the costumes.  His first reaction was that he had somehow failed in his design, perhaps making the costumes too showy or too obvious.  But on second thought, Dunn acknowledged that the costumes are engaging in their own dialogue with each other onscreen, independent of the spoken dialogue, and that viewers have a relationship with the costumes in a purely non-verbal, meta-narrative context (which echoed Bruzzi’s presentation earlier in the morning).

After the lunch break, two excellent papers were presented by Tarini Sdirhana, a Phd candidate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and Lucy Oakley, Head of Education and Programs at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU. Sdirhana discussed the complex and changing costume iconography of female stars in Hindi film from the 1940s-1970s, with an emphasis on the 1970s. Her paper presented the sartorial manifestations of the “virtuous woman”, “persecuted courtesan” and “the vamp” in Hindi cinema, and how these costume shorthands for morality and amorality–familiar to the movie-going audience–were complicated and made multidimensional in performances by actresses Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman.

Oakley discussed the considerable influence of artist Edwin Austin Abbey on early 20th century epic cinema.  Her talk demonstrated the striking similarities between director D.W. Griffith’s early epic cinema, such as Intolerance (1916), and the costumes, compositions, and gestures in Abbey’s paintings of Shakespeare tragedies and, most significantly, his famous set of Holy Grail murals at Boston Public Library, completed in 1895.

Next up, a recorded conversation between Joanna Abijaoude of FIDM Museum and Harry Rotz, longtime milliner at Western Costume, was a joy to hear.  The conversation was accompanied by a parade of images displaying the work of Rotz’s long and impressive career.  Abijaoude and Rotz talked about his working process, and Rotz noted how his favorite costume designers were those who desired true collaboration, taking full advantage of his experience and expertise. He underscored that he always begins the design process with choosing material, not sketching out the design, and also emphasized the valuable contributions of his team of assistants. The conversation ended with Rotz’s lament that today’s young designers don’t read enough historical fiction or non-fiction, with the implicit encouragement to do more literary and cultural research.

The last panel of the day, moderated by NYU Costume Studies Program Director and Professor Nancy Deihl, centered around the challenges of presenting, representing, and caring for film costume post-production in museum collections, libraries, and auction houses. Titled “Ghosts in the Wardrobe Department”, the inspiration for discussion was taken from Peter Stallybrass’s idea of clothing as a repository of memory. Participants were Lucy Carr, Associate Specialist for Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams; Jean Druesedow, Director of Kent State University Museum; Nancy Friedland, Film Media Librarian at Columbia University; Barbara Miller, Curator of the Collection and Exhibitions at Museum of the Moving Image; and myself, Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects at the Harry Ransom Center.

The notion of the costume as “relic”, and the strongest viewer association with the costume (actor, character, or costume designer?), was the first topic of discussion.  All on the panel acknowledged the power of costume to strongly evoke the film star or onscreen character.  Everyone agreed that this aspect should not be diminished for the audience, but at the same time museums, archives, and libraries should aim for an emphasis on a broader context beyond the star or character to heighten the viewer’s understanding of film costume.

From left: moderator Nancy Deihl, Jean Druesedow, Kent State University Museum; Barbara Miller, Museum of the Moving Image; Jill Morena, Harry Ransom Center; Nancy Friedland, Columbia University

From left: Nancy Deihl, Jean Druesedow, Barbara Miller, Jill Morena, Nancy Friedland, and Lucy Carr

With the costume completely disconnected from the production and the onscreen film, and the audience’s established relationship to the film or actor, how do museums, libraries, and auction houses approach a costume’s display or deepen its interpretation?

At the Museum of the Moving Image and the Ransom Center, the costume is contextualized within the entire creative process of filmmaking and its related archival material; likewise, at Kent State University Museum, actress Katherine Hepburn’s costumes and personal clothing are augmented through the relationship between the garment and archival photographs of Hepburn, both posed or arrested in motion. Druesedow noted in particular the mirroring of stances and gestures in an exhibition display of Hepburn’s iconic trousers, shown individually in “poses” corresponding to photographs of Hepburn; she also commented on the emotional impact of this display on many female viewers, who contemplated the trailblazing sartorial actions of the woman symbolized before them.  At Columbia University, costume’s role in filmmaking is understood through historical, scholarly, or reference materials for costume design, accessed through primary sources or secondary sources such as subject databases and indexes.  Carr noted that when film costume is encountered in an auction setting, nearly all buyers and participants are interested in the star, not the particular character, film, or associated costume designer.  It is all about collecting the iconic, stand-alone piece that embodies that actor or actress.

Finally, a discussion on conservation choices ended the panel questions–how much does one “keep” or “take away” when faced with conservation work?  While rarely anything is done in an auction context, museums often grapple with this dilemma once a costume needs to go on loan or display.  Conservation work on film costumes is generally cautious and is aimed at preserving evidence of use and wear during the production.  But no matter how minimal, conservation treatment ultimately alters an item.  In this sense, museums and archives continue to “render” the reality and history of a costume, long after the film has wrapped.

All in all, it was a very productive and stimulating day devoted to the myriad significance of film costume and cross-disciplinary dialogue.  I certainly hope there is a third conference next year.  Many thanks to Ya’ara Keydar for images.

All images courtesy of Ya’ara Keydar, excepting lead image, taken by the author.

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