Designers are a girl’s best friend

AN ACTOR breathes life into a character but a costume can transcend time and language to make it iconic.

This powerful medium is explored in Hollywood Costume, an upcoming exhibition of fabulous film costumes at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The outfits have yet to be revealed — but we’ve selected our very own top 10.

First, it has to be Monroe. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes costumer William Travilla apparently fell in love on the set. Marilyn Monroe was Joe DiMaggio’s fiancée at the time of the 1953 musical. According to Andrew Hansford’s Dressing Marilyn, Travilla and his muse had an affair. He certainly designed like a man in love.

Diamond-crazy character Lorelei Lee’s dresses highlight Monroe’s famous curves while keeping them under wraps. Each outfit adheres to a vision of the character as a lady who aspires to better things rather than a dumb-blonde stereotype. Lee even wears one of the turtleneck dresses Norma Jean was so fond of in life. Her pink Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend dress was felt-lined and bone-corseted to hold it in place. The gown sold for $310,000 at a Hollywood memorabilia auction in 2010.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de Souffle) Patricia (Jean Seberg) wears the kind of garments fashion magazines insist are essential. Her trenchcoat, cigarette-pants and Breton-striped t-shirts are terribly simple but Godard was never try-hard. Her gamine frame and high cheekbones are enhanced by the fedora and shirt she steals from her lover, Michel. The clothes communicate Patricia’s insouciance just as well as her incessant smoking. She makes ennui look achingly cool. This boy-meets-chic style influences modern stars like Alexa Chung and Michelle Williams. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel dresses in homage to Humphrey Bogart circa Casablanca but Bogie looked nowhere near as sexy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s has not entirely stood the test of time. The lengthy close-ups whenever Audrey Hepburn so much as removes her sunglasses are tedious. Mickey Rooney, as Japanese photographer Mr Yunioshi, is wildly offensive. Holly Golightly’s Givenchy costumes, however, will probably never date. The character’s style adapted to suit Hepburn, who was Hubert de Givenchy’s muse. Tiffany’s showcased Givenchy’s iconic black dress, but not as designed. He created a slim black sheath for the opening scene, and two copies, but Paramount bosses thought it showed too much leg.

The original is stored in Givenchy’s archives. One copy is at the Museum of Fashion in Madrid. In 2006, Christies sold the other for £467,200. Costume designer Edith Head, who dressed the rest of the cast, made more modest versions for the film and all promotional images.

Annie Hall is a love letter to Diane Keaton (real name Diane Hall, nickname Annie) from then boyfriend Woody Allen. He told her to wear what she liked. For such a neurotic character, Annie developed a strong look. “I stole what I wanted to wear from cool-looking women on the streets of New York,” Keaton writes in her memoir, Then Again. “I stole the hat from [French actress] Aurore Clément, who showed up to the set of The Godfather: Part II in a slouchy bolero pulled down low … Aurore had style but so did all the street-chic women in SoHo in the mid-Seventies. They were the real costume designers of Annie Hall.” Annie’s style is as appealing as it was in 1977 and has frequently inspired fashion editors since.

Fashion trends follow the Twenty-Year Rule, meaning that each season several designers will “feel” a look that was around two decades ago. This is why your mother is convinced she’s seen it all before (she usually has) and why everything Julia Roberts wears in Pretty Woman (1990) has made a recent comeback. Over-the-knee boots, lace dresses, huge clutches and boyfriend blazers have all been 2010’s trends. Check the spring 2012 shows for luxury variations on the midriff-free dress she wears to walk Hollywood Boulevard.

Considering the film’s impact on fashion it is remarkable that none of the clothes were borrowed. Costume designer Marilyn Vance made everything Vivian Ward wears. According to Elle, the mini-dress was inspired by a swimsuit Vance loved in the 1960s. Richard Gere wore bespoke Cerruti suits, far lighter and more elegant than the business suits popular in the US at the time.

Atonement author Ian McEwan made his poor Cecilia’s dress fundamental to her fateful tryst with Robbie. Costumer Jacqueline Durran’s realisation of his detailed description helped win her an Academy Award nomination. Keira Knightly has the perfect figure for 1930s’ fashion and looks stunning in Durran’s laser-patterned green dress.

The bias cut and broad hem met director Joe Wright’s request for a garment with lots of movement. “Making a dress that works while having sex standing up — it’s a bit tricky,” Wright told Entertainment Weekly. Durran sought a military costumer’s advice for the battle of Dunkirk scenes.

“The hard part was that there are not many uniforms left in existence,” she told the LA Times. “We had 1,000 soldiers and not enough originals, maybe 20 to 50 in the correct colour. We ended up with 250 soldiers dressed just as we wanted and we had to compromise on the rest.”

Natalie Portman’s most powerful scenes in Black Swan have no lines. Her character’s transformation is conveyed by gory prosthetics, orchestral themes and her clothes. Costumer Amy Westcott mirrored Nina Sayers’s story arc with colours and cuts. Portman wears girly clothes in white and baby pink for the early scenes.

As she begins to rebel against her mother, and then to self-destruct, her clothes gradually turn darker and more revealing. Her classmate Lily (Mila Kunis) and predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder) both wear black and silver to show they’re in touch with their inner Black Swan. The elaborate Swan Lake costumes and knitwear were provided by Portman’s friends Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers behind the Rodarte clothing brand.

Mark Bridges has already won an Oscar for best costume design on The Artist. Bridges’s flawless designs for the silent film certainly look Oscar-worthy. Bridges based Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) on the young Joan Crawford who, like the character, got her first break in silent film. George (Jean DuJardin) channels Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert.

Surprisingly, Bridges didn’t feel constrained by the lack of sound or colour. “You don’t have to worry about microphones rubbing against taffeta, dangling jewellery and such,” he told the LA Times. “As far as the colours go, I’d take a black and white photo of the fabric and then find out how that colour would translate to black and white using the [art department’s] colour-chart as a key.”

Sex and the City: The Movie director Michael Patrick King told costumer Pat Field he wanted “everything bigger and more vibrant than before”. She delivered. From the giant camellia Carrie wears during the opening credits to Samantha’s 50th birthday minidress, this film is a fashion tour de force.

Field’s TV work mixed high-end fashion with bargain-bin finds but the film is haute-heavy. Her costume department was so spoilt with gifts from marketing-savvy designers that she didn’t need the creativity that made the TV characters authentic. Sarah Jessica Parker often praises Field for telling Carrie’s story with clothes but fashion is almost a separate character in this film. And it is a diva. It pervades every scene, battling the actors for our attention. The cast just about keep it at bay in the original but it drowns them in the sequel.

Are you fashion-forward or ensembly-challenged? In 1995, Clueless didn’t just show teens a new way to dress, it supplied matching jargon. Bucking the trends of the day, costumer Mona May created looks that are both visually uplifting and true to the teenage cast. May offered an antidote to 1990s grunge with her cutesy, candy-coloured clothes. “I wanted the girls to be girls again, with over-the-knee stockings and Mary Jane shoes,” she told Hint magazine. “We wanted to change the current look that was on the street and show teens how to have fun with clothes.”

Amy Heckerling’s characters adore fashion but keep it in perspective. “Fashion is one thing but creating real characters on film that people can relate to is a whole other thing,” says Heckerling.

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