With the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film Roma, a vast amount of critical attention has been devoted to the autobiographical nature of the piece. The film, set
in 1970/1, chronicles a year in the life of the Cuarón family’s maid during his childhood in Mexico City, and Cuarón and his crew painstakingly recreated his family home.
Yet surprisingly little attention has been given film’s costume – given that they were made and sourced with an equal attention to detail. Cuarón’s devotion to recreating the fashion of 70s Mexico involved him ringing up childhood family and friends to ensure that every item of clothing used on set was as authentic. The crew even replicated the clothes of Cuarón’s old neighbours when dressing individual extras. The lack of discussion on the film’s costume may be due to the distinctive colour palette of the film: black and white, favouring very pale, almost luminescent shades of grey. The costume becomes entirely incorporated into this colour scheme – if the word ‘colour’ can be used at all – and so does
not stand out in any way. But it is by no means lost; this exact replication of an earlier fashion, from the knitted jumpers and cotton shorts of the children to the simple chequered
cloth apron of their maid Cleo, is vital in recreating such a vivid image of the past.
The artist Annabel Nicolson’s 1973 performance of Reel Time, which connected a film projector and a sewing machine through a loop of celluloid, provides a striking visual representation of the intertwined relationship between film and fashion; a relationship that has existed since the beginning of cinema. When cinemas began to spring up in cities, towns, and even villages in the early 1900s, high fashion suddenly became visible on a widely available platform; now they were seen by anyone who attended the cinema, with short fashion films being shown before other screenings. The 1913 Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette, produced by fashion journalist Abbey Meehan, for example, showed all the latest fashions modelled in colour with a musical accompaniment alongside each gown.
Fashion has even altered the pace of Hollywood film production: during the 1920s and 30s producer Samuel Goldwyn was forced to get rid of thousands of feet of film, as the fast-shifting waistlines and hemlines of this period meant that a film’s costume choices could become ‘outmoded’ before the film’s release. Goldwyn eventually hired Chanel in 1931, providing her with a workshop and fashion tools in Hollywood so that she could create the styles that she believed would be ‘in fashion’ in a year’s time. Initially, films were recordings of everyday events, and so their costumes typically reflected the fashion of the time. Yet over the next several decades, costume became a means of transporting an audience years into the past through the imitation of earlier fashions.
Gone With The Wind (1939) is commonly labelled as the birth of the ‘costume drama’ with its recreation of the elaborate gowns of the 1860s and over 5000 individual items of clothing. The costumes here take on a symbolic function, too, as Scarlet O’Hara’s famous first outfit is a ‘Southern Belle’ style gown – the buttoned neck and white fabric suggesting innocence, but red details hinting at something more rebellious. This latter idea is then developed with a more suggestive, vivid green dress later in the film. The heavy-handedness of such symbolism, along with the almost melodramatic colour scheme of the entire film is jarring compared to modern modes of costume design, and the use of costume was soon to become integrated into more finely tuned colour palettes.
In The Birds (1963), for example, following Hitchcock’s demand that Tippi Hedren should wear a green dress when being chased by crows, costume designer Edith Head created
outfits of only blue and green for the rest of the film. In Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), set in modern day America, stark images of poverty are interspersed with beautiful shots of the sleepy, empty expanse of the American landscape, and through costume the two are linked. The costumes are a display of cheap, colourful clothes. The staple outfit of the 17-year-old runaway protagonist Star, for example, is a canary-yellow, baggy vest top worn over an electric pink bralette and paired with blue denim hot-pants. Yet the result is not garish, and the colouring of the scenery itself seems enhanced, everything becoming part of an almost nostalgic, sun-baked saturation.
American Honey isn’t an attempt to recreate the past but a comment on present-day America. What is therefore interesting is the fact that, in 50 years – or even 10 – the costumes of American Honey will become a fashion of a previous era, an indicator of this decade, where mass-produced, cheap clothing dominates. Whilst preserved in the film, these styles will become outdated in reality, and this is where the ‘reels’ of film and fashion begin to run at different paces. In sci-fi films, costumes are as vital as futuristic buildings
or technology in signalling to the audience that this is an imagined vision of the future. The early sci-fi film, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) features strangely dressed,
unhuman figures whose vivid coloured clothes are jarringly discordant with the background’s peculiar mix of clashing colours and sepia-wash. This was made before Technicolour, with the random array of colours being due to the lengthy process of hand painting the colours directly on to each copy of film stock.
This slightly clumsy use of colour in costume has given way over the past century to something much more finely-tuned. Costumes in later sci-fi films are just as bold and exaggerated, but have become fashion, distinct from simply costume. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner makes use of a very sparse colour palette, and instead of creating a
completely new imagined fashion of the future, costume designer Michael Kaplan instead used film noir as inspiration: the film’s wardrobe consists of an exaggerated, futuristic
take on tailored suits, faux-fur jackets and trench coats. By incorporating this, the costumes are not gimmicky attempts at predicting the future, but almost timeless. The costume design in Blade Runner had a direct effect on 80s fashion, with Kaplan’s designs inspiring wide-shouldered looks in women’s fashion. Futuristic fashions are therefore no longer so unfamiliar; they hold dual positions on fashion’s rapidly changing timeline, simultaneously in the imagined future and in the present.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that “one cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, décor or even editing” – time is what is at the core of cinema. The same can be said for fashion; without its continuous state of change, fashion would not be ‘fashion’ at all – it would just be clothes. So for filmmakers, such as Cuarón with Roma, costume becomes the easiest means of time-travel. How this relationship between fashion and film will change with further advancements in film technology, and as the imagined future ages of old sci-fi films are reached in reality, is something that only cinema will be able to show us.