Fashion in Film: how clothes drive character

As editor of the website Clothes on Film, Christopher Laverty brings a sharp eye to the history of costume design in cinema and television. In his new book for publishers Laurence King, Laverty examines the work that fashion designers have created for film since the 1930s up to the present day. We spoke to him about this fascinating area of film production, which is vital to both narrative and character development alike

Diane von Fürstenberg ‘wrap dress’ discussed in new book Fashion in Film
Cybill Shepherd in a coral Diane von Fürstenberg ‘wrap dress’ in Taxi Driver (1976). “The DVF wrap dress is designed to do anything in,” writes Christopher Laverty in Fashion in Film, “work, play, even lunch with Robert de Niro.” (Columbia/The Kobal Collection)

Creative Review: In Fashion in Film, you’ve turned the focus more directly on designers who have created clothing for film, rather than looking at a single film or character, as you’ve done at clothesonfilm.com. What was the reason for that?

Christopher Laverty: Fashion in Film concentrates solely on the work of fashion designers for film. So Gucci, Armani, Donna Karan – it’s a celebration and analysis of their best work. The designers featured must have straddled both industries – fashion and costume. It’s also an investigation. I wanted to uncover the truth behind exactly what was provided and designed for film by fashion designers and what was claimed to be or whose involvement was exaggerated by the press.

Amy Adams’ character Sydney Prosser wears a similar dress in American Hustle (2013). “Prosser is trying to elevate her status.... She doesn’t understand elegance or subtlety,” says Laverty. (Atlas Entertainment/The Kobal Collection)
Amy Adams’ character Sydney Prosser wears a similar dress in American Hustle (2013). “Prosser is trying to elevate her status…. She doesn’t understand elegance or subtlety,” says Laverty. (Atlas Entertainment/The Kobal Collection)

CR: American Hustle (2013) comes up with some frequency in the book. Can you say why you think this film has attracted so much commentary in terms of its costume design?

CL: American Hustle features a lot of clothing by prominent fashion designers, as selected by costume designer Michael Wilkinson. This is why it pops up so frequently in my book and why it garnered so much attention in the media. What I find fascinating about American Hustle is how misinterpreted it seemed to be by fashionistas. The clothes in the film were coveted as desirable looks to replicate. Yet these are grubby, gaudy garments worn by people who do not understand the first thing about style. For example, Amy Adams’ character Sydney Prosser is trying to elevate her status via expensive clothing. She doesn’t understand elegance or subtlety, but she too is creating a character. Their clothing is a lie because they are a lie. They are dressing to impress with zero awareness of self; they are, after all, con artists.

Edith Head’s copy of Givenchy’s rejected black dress for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). According to Laverty, the top half of the dress is almost identical to Givenchy’s original (which featured on the poster art for the film), but accessorised with Tiffany diamonds and pearl necklace (Paramount/The Kobal Collection)
Edith Head’s copy of Givenchy’s rejected black dress for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). According to Laverty, the top half of the dress is almost identical to Givenchy’s original (which featured on the poster art for the film), but accessorised with Tiffany diamonds and pearl necklace (Paramount/The Kobal Collection)

CR: You also pair American Hustle with Taxi Driver (1976) in looking at Diane von Fürstenberg’s designs. What does the use of her ‘wrap dress’ symbolise in each film, do you think?

CL: The wrap dress is one of my favourite garments of all time. On screen it functions as a liberating but still traditionally feminine item that, because of its construction and comfortable fit, exemplifies freedom. A wrap dress had to be the choice for Elena Anaya’s character in The Skin I Live In because, after gender reassignment, with its curve-hugging stretch and breathable one-tie fastening, there is no ensemble more appropriate. And really, ask yourself, what would you wear on your first day as a woman?

In fashion and lifestyle terms it is one of the few day-to-night garments that can actually function in both worlds. Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver can wear one to the campaign office and then it looks no less appropriate on a date. In Taxi Driver the wrap dress personifies the modern woman, while in American Hustle it personifies the fashion-conscious woman. Yet both are not mutually exclusive.

Mary-Quant_img089 credit © William Klein
Hepburn in a brand new look, wearing a Mary Quant mini-dress in Two for the Road (1967), photographed by William Klein

CR: One of my favourite early posts of yours looks at Stockard Channing’s Rizzo from Grease. It’s incredible how much of her state of mind and the evolution of her own story comes through what she wears. How significant is costume to a film’s narrative?

CL: One of the films where I first noticed how costume can identify character and power narrative was The Conversation (I was lucky enough to speak to the costume designer of the film, Aggie Guerard Rogers, many years later). Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, wears this odd plastic raincoat (actually a pocket one), but only during moments pertaining to the central murder plot. He even wears the coat when dreaming about the plot. Why he wears this style of coat is as ambivalent as the rest of the film, but being translucent this does imply Caul’s paranoia at being bugged. Moreover, there is something sleazy and shameful about a raincoat, with its connotations of flashers and dirty old men stashing pornography underneath. It’s not just a raincoat; it’s a method of interpreting Hackman’s character.

A sketch featured in book Fashion in Film
Sketch by Elsa Schiaparelli of an evening dress which has similar features to her reworked Paquin gown for Moulin Rouge (1952) © Elsa Schiaparell

CR: Does historical accuracy matter more than how the clothes drive character? Or is there an ideal state in between?

CL: Serving the story is always more important than serving history. Feature films are not documentaries (unless they are!) so first and foremost they must be entertaining. With period clothing it is often about giving the audience what they expect rather than what is actually historically accurate, for risk of being jarring or even unintentionally humorous.

Joan Bergin, costume designer for TV series The Tudors, told me the show had a ‘no codpiece’ rule despite the fact that men of the era would have been wearing one. Why? Because they look silly to modern eyes and, unless you’re someone with a super keen interest in history, are you really going to notice they’re missing?

One of the most famous movie costumes of recent years, Keira Knightley’s green dress for Atonement, is hardly historically accurate with its very low and loose neckline, yet it’s what we expect to see: light and delicate, long and slinky and silky. We don’t question it because we don’t want to.

The mink fur coat worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) was designed by Fendi (Touchstone Pictures/The Kobal Collection/James Hamilton).
The mink fur coat worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) was designed by Fendi (Touchstone Pictures/The Kobal Collection/James Hamilton).

CR: Part of Audrey Hepburn’s appeal was that she came to embody a kind of 60s ‘look’, with Givenchy, in particular. Are there other actors who have used clothing in a similar way?

CL: It’s kind of ironic that my favourite Audrey Hepburn movie, Two for the Road, is the one time she stepped away from Givenchy in an attempt to ‘sex up’ her image [see right] and appeal to a younger audience during an era (late-1960s) when she was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Another actress linked to a fashion designer is Catherine Deneuve, who, since Belle de Jour in 1967, was largely dressed on screen by Yves Saint Laurent. Actually, [he] was a designer who really understood the function of costume design – first and foremost to serve character and narrative. His look was persevered on screen – all chic and cold couture in the case of Belle de Jour – but this perfectly reflected Deneuve’s character in the story and her detachment from the ‘real’ world.

Bart Mueller’s sketch for the veil added to the L’Wren Scott dress that Nicole Kidman wears in Stoker (2012) © Bart Mueller
Bart Mueller’s sketch for the veil added to the L’Wren Scott dress that Nicole Kidman wears in Stoker (2012) © Bart Mueller

CR: You’ve written about Wes Anderson before – in what way do clothes and costume contribute to the creation of a unique ‘world’ in his films?

CL: Wes Anderson’s movies all seem to take place in a parallel universe that is basically the inside of his head spilled out onto film. Costume is no exception.I know for a fact some of the costume designers that have worked for Anderson have struggled to interpret his very specific world and the total control he has over it.

This is the classic paradox of costume and fashion design – which came first? The screen has always borrowed from the catwalk which, in turn, borrows from the screen.

Really though, costume in his movies is more about evoking a period than recreating it. The Darjeeling Limited is wonderfully simplistic in this approach. The three leads in their very American grey suits, fashionable and contemporary but still essentially the Yankee abroad, are all inappropriately dressed for the wrong occasions (yes, I realise I’m paraphrasing Raiders of the Lost Ark here).

One of the most enjoyable costume journeys in a Wes Anderson film is Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Watching him crumble sartorially in front of our eyes as he’s locked up wearing an ill-fitting prison uniform is both amusing and sad. We know just how much looking a certain way means to him. It’s a combination of how the mighty have fallen and his re-birth as a new, more empathetic man.

The cover of Fashion in Film
The cover of Fashion in Film

CR: You write in the book that, as an influence on fashion, cinema “functions best within the realms of science-fiction and fantasy or period productions”. Can you expand on that?

CL: Fashion’s most obvious reinterpretation of film costume is on the catwalk. By and large catwalk shows have to be eye catching and daring or, frankly, they won’t get any column inches. As such the fantasy/sci-fi realm is ripe for pillaging. The wilder the better.

Alexander McQueen riffed on Tron in 2000, for example. His jumpsuits strongly resembled the movie’s ‘light suits’ (again remade to staggering effect in the 2010 sequel), fitting his outlandish MO to a tee. Likewise, The Hunger Games’ Capitol Couture was all over catwalks, particularly after the second movie, Catching Fire. Interestingly, that film actually took pieces from the catwalk and reworked them for the film.

This is the classic paradox of costume and fashion design – which came first? The screen has always borrowed from the catwalk which, in turn, borrows from the screen. Who has had most influence on whom is still very much open to debate.


Fashion in Film, by Christopher Laverty, is published by Laurence King; £30. laurenceking.com

clothesonfilm.com, @clothesonfilm

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