Film and Dress: Celebrating the Costume Designer

Film and dress are probably two of my favourite things in the world so imagine my delight when I recently received a year’s subscription to the new film streaming service offered by the British Film Institute (BFI).  An amazing gift, this resource allows you access to their fantastic archive of British films as well as recent films for which you pay a small additional charge.  Think of it as if Netflix and British cinema history fell in love and had a baby.  I was also very excited to discover that there are over 100 free films related to the subject of textile, fashion and costume design, which I look forward to viewing over the next year.

BFI Player

Speaking of costume design, February is always a double bonus for me because it welcomes two of the most well known awarding ceremonies within the Western film industry; the BAFTAs in Britain and the Oscars in the US.  These are a perfect combination of film and dress that we are invited to indulge for a brief moment! This year, it was even more poignant given that I have been doing a bit of research on ballgowns and their presence at red carpet events.   These occasions are still important opportunities for designers to present their most extravagant evening dress designs.  Whether it be wide skirts with layers of fabric, low necklines, lavish surface detail or bare arms, the traditional nineteenth-century ballgown form continues to be echoed in contemporary fashions.  Yet, while traditions in form may remain, tastes greatly vary. It’s fascinating to see the same outfits featured in both worst and best dressed lists for both events. Disagreements on celebrity fashionability provide much material for discussion, debate and mirth.

A selection of the ‘worst dressed’ at the BAFTAs, according to The Mirror tabloid

Same outfit considered ‘best’ dressed by InStyle magazine

Speaking of costume design, February is always a double bonus for me because it welcomes two of the most well known awarding ceremonies within the Western film industry; the BAFTAs in Britain and the Oscars in the US.  These are a perfect combination of film and dress that we are invited to indulge for a brief moment!This year, it was even more poignant given that I have been doing a bit of research on ballgowns and their presence at red carpet events.   These occasions are still important opportunities for designers to present their most extravagant evening dress designs.  Whether it be wide skirts with layers of fabric, low necklines, lavish surface detail or bare arms, the traditional nineteenth-century ballgown form continues to be echoed in contemporary fashions.  Yet, while traditions in form may remain, tastes greatly vary. It’s fascinating to see the same outfits featured in both worst and best dressed lists for both events. Disagreements on celebrity fashionability provide much material for discussion, debate and mirth.

Room With A View, 1985, Merchant Ivory Productions Costume Design by Jenny Beavan

 

Jenny Beavan at the BAFTAs 2016

Beavan attended the evening in a leather jacket, grey fringed scarf (which Beavan said had been chosen because of its resemblance to an oil rag and so associated her dress with the film she was being nominated for – Mad Max) and black trousers.

Making a second public appearance at the Oscars on Sunday evening, Beavan presented herself in a similiar ensemble except this time her leather jacket had been embellished with Swarovski crystals to create a skull steering wheel motif that again referenced Mad Max: Fury Road, the film she was nominated for.

Beavan accepted her Oscar, 2016

Beavan recently explained that due to a bad back, heels and a formal gown are not appropriate attire for her at these events.  When asked about what she wore to the BAFTAs, Beavan’s response was ‘I just like feeling comfortable and as far as I’m concerned I’m really dressed up.’

Although I completely love seeing what everyone wears to these red carpet events, I think Beavan’s choice of outfit was brilliant and demands our utter respect – this is exactly why Fry made the joke he did about her dress.  Rather than appearing in the standard uniform expected at these gatherings, Beavan came in her own uniform, the one that she felt best reflected both her work and her physicality.  The small sartorial references to the film that was responsible for bringing her to these two events were genius and, as far as I can tell, a first as not one other nominee chose to reference the film they represented.  That is also why Beavan’s choice of dress should be admired. In representing the film itself through her outfit, Beavan demonstrated her ability to think about films as a reproduction of events, dress and characters.  This is an attribute to her skills as a costume designer.

For me, her choice of dress also reflects an idea that Judith Thurman put forward in her essay Scenes from a Marriage, published in The New Yorker, May 2005.  While acknowledging how potentially dowdy an iconic Chanel tweed suit can be, with its lack of sex appeal, Thurman asserts :

But it keeps faith with an enlightened notion that refuses to die, no matter how hard its adversaries – the Versaces of the world – try to kill it, and one which we owe almost entirely to Chanel: that a woman is entitled to dress with the same dignity, comfort, and self possession as a man.” (1)

Bravo to Jenny Beavan for remembering this at an event that most certainly defines itself as a ‘Versace of the world’.

 

  1. Judith Thurman, “Scenes from a Marriage”. IN Judith Thurman Cleopatra’s Nose, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

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